Further Education funding must go further to help organisations like Ascentis
A great deal was made of Conservative pledges toward the education sector ahead of December’s general election, with the promises of additional funding that were made enough to help Boris Johnson to a comfortable victory. However, news from earlier this month will have come as a setback for hopefuls that funding will make a difference in the Further Education [FE] sector, after a minister revealed that the first FE funding increase falls below inflation.
Last year, then chancellor Sajid Javid announced that every college and sixth form would receive at least £4,188 per student within the 16-19 age range from August this year, a 4.7 per cent increase in current funding levels compared to 2013, which were set at £4,000 and have been frozen since.
However, when bringing inflation into account, the value of the 2013 rate at 2019-20 prices “produces a figure of £4,435” according to interim Further Education minister Michelle Donelan.
Donelan made the revelation in Parliament in response to shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, who hit out at the plans for failing to reverse austerity cuts to FE funding in late January.
Speaking to FE Week’s Billy Camden, Rayner said: “The Tories have delivered devastating cuts to further education, and if they will not provide the funding needed then their promises to provide additional funding are utterly meaningless.
“Despite promising an end to austerity, it is clear that it will continue in colleges across the country, with the vast majority of Conservative cuts left in place in the years ahead.
“A refusal to reverse their cuts in full proves the Tories are not serious about investing in further education. They only ever give with one hand after taking far more with the other.”
£400 million has been dedicated to Further Education in 2020-21, with Donelan calling it “the biggest injection of new money into 16 to 19 education in a single year since 2010, with funding increasing faster for 16 to 19 education than in five to 16 schooling.”
Donelan added: “This includes a 4.7 per cent increase in the base rate to £4,188. With other funding announced, such as an additional £120 million of funding for high cost and high value subjects and £35 million to support students with Maths and English GCSE retakes, this represents an increase of around 7 per cent in overall 16 to 19 funding.”
Funding beyond 2020-21 equally remains uncertain, with future funding to be “considered as part of the next spending review”.
However, with scepticism already growing as to how far any funding increases will go in reversing cuts, there is a sentiment that it must go further to help both Further Education providers and the organisations and businesses that serve them.
One such organisation is leading UK educational charity Ascentis. Headed by CEO Phil Wilkinson, the Lancaster based charity provides a range of qualifications and specialist software, working in close conjunction with schools, colleges, independent training organisations and universities to design new up-to-date and cutting—edge qualifications which allow disadvantaged pupils and students, such as those suffering from conditions like dyslexia, progress to further study, higher education and employment.
Speaking to The Parliamentary Review, Wilkinson said that the last decade of austerity has proven challenging for his organisation and its customers, resulting in the closure of many of its counterparts in the industry.
Wilkinson said: “The past ten-year period has been very challenging for educational charities like ourselves and the customers that we serve – particularly the further education sector – as a result of severe funding reductions and constant policy changes.”
It is only Ascentis’ effective strategy and approach which has allowed it to thrive while its competitors have either shrunk or closed, something which Wilkinson paid tribute to.
He said: “The key to our success is simple. We have the correct strategy: we don’t try to do everything. Instead we focus on the areas in which we can truly be the best.
“For our qualifications, that means Access to Higher Education, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), Teacher Training and Short Online Qualifications in areas such as understanding British values and mental health. For our specialist software this means solutions to help children with dyslexia and dyscalculia.
"Furthermore, we have the best people to implement the strategy. This starts with the culture, which, at Ascentis, is defined as a strong desire to help people coupled with an equally strong desire to be ambitious and competitive. This culture is constantly reinforced.
“As CEO I am supported by a talented leadership team, a wider management team and a growing base of staff, moderators and external verifiers.”
With Ascentis still going strong even in testing times for the FE sector, its impact is there for all to see, as Wilkinson highlights.
“Every year we help more than 130,000 people to work towards educational qualifications, to enable them to progress to employment or further study, including higher education.”
It is a testament to Ascentis as an organisation that they have been able to navigate troubled waters to great effect, yet competition in the market and Ascentis’ own impact has the potential to be greater, if the FE sector’s financial struggles are eased.
For this to happen, government pledges for the industry must go further.