An Example of College Funding Working as Intended

At half past eight on Wednesday morning a group of Ghanaian ladies are bringing their children to the nursery outside our college.  The ten of them are coming in for a day of lessons, which begins with English language, covers maths and a little science and ends with ICT.  It started with one woman enquiring where she could improve her English.  It ended with her and all her friends getting everything they could out of our college in a great example of an institution really trying to serve its community, not just making itself available.  And, crucially, it is one of the few experiences I’ve had which puts the ‘education as a business’ funding model in a positive light.   

There are many problems in FE which can be traced back, in part, to the funding model which has shaped its culture since 1992.  I won’t rehash arguments I have already made in the past, but I have linked it to poor behaviour management culture (, lack of SLT involvement in day to day teaching and the dominance of business departments such as marketing over curriculum ( ).  However, having experienced one positive impact of the “funding per qualification” system it seems only fair to write about that too. 

The broader context of this positive is not so good.  It’s a silver lining situation.  The cloud is that finance recently informed us we are several thousands of pounds below our projected AEB (adult education budget) and needed to find some extra money.  We scrabbled everywhere we could for it.  Anyone who passed an Entry Level test was practically begged to enrol on the next one up.  I’m not ashamed to admit we canvassed some of the less qualified staff (jobs ride on budgets, after all), but we didn’t have much luck.  That is, until we stumbled across a rich vein of untapped ESOL (English as a second or additional language) students.  Our English staff asked the first of our Ghanaian students if she would like to do the next level after she passed an exam and got into a conversation with her about what exactly she needed.  

It turned out her son would soon be attending school in the UK.  What she really wanted, more than being able to speak English, was to help him understand his lessons and homework here.  He would be taught subjects he had begun to learn in another language.  She wanted to know the maths vocabulary, what was taught in the science curriculum, how to use a computer to check his homework and so on.  What’s more, she had several friends in the same situation. 

We went to work finding a way to accommodate them.  We merged classes that had shrunk due to drop outs or passes.  We closed a couple of support sessions that were poorly attended and we worked out who was now free and what they were qualified to deliver.  Our staff come from such a wide range of backgrounds (and were so willing to help out and try something new) that we soon stitched together a bespoke curriculum for adults wanting to improve their English and learn how to support children through the English national curriculum.  It was a good thing to do, and that made everyone feel good.  It also helped that we could tie several qualifications to it and go some way to solving our AEB problem. 

I am certainly not arguing that the way to get colleges thinking creatively about serving the community is to threaten their jobs if they don’t come up with something. It would be nice if that situation had arisen, not out of a desire to avoid losing our jobs, but simply to do them as best we could. Perhaps it could be positive instead of negative (such as bonuses for expanding the business) in a better funded sector.  In the long run, that would get the same application without the long-term disillusionment that can set in when funding is always on such a knife edge.    However, there is clearly some benefit to local communities in incentivising colleges to reach into every nook and cranny to find out where they could help.  It forces us to go out to the community, rather than waiting for the community to come to us.  It means our staff want to help people through the bureaucracy of enrolment, rather than leaving them to figure it out for themselves or fail and walk away.  

Whether these positives match the poisonous impact the funding model has on behaviour standards, academic rigour and overall efficiency is up for debate, but I thought it time to acknowledge that some positives exist which we would not wish to discard.