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More than a third of the money allocated to the UK prime minister’s flagship numeracy programme in its first year was handed back to the Treasury unspent, research has revealed.

The Multiply scheme is intended to improve adult maths skills across the country, a personal priority for Rishi Sunak.

Launched two years ago, when the prime minister was still chancellor, the £560mn programme was designed to address what he described as a “tragic” level of low numeracy skills, while forming part of a bid to create a “high wage, high skill, high productivity economy of the future”.

But of the £81mn given to English local authorities for courses in 2022, £30mn was returned to the Treasury. The funds are provided in annual tranches, and Treasury rules mean unspent money cannot be rolled over into the following year. Some areas returned the vast majority of their funding. 

Skills experts and local leaders said areas had not been given enough time to set up the first year of the scheme before money had to be returned.

Lucy Nethsingha, Liberal Democrat leader of Cambridgeshire county council, said authorities had been given just six months to get the programme up and running.

“Colleges and other providers could not recruit students on that timescale,” she added. Cambridgeshire had to hand back a third of its funding.

Nine out of 10 local authorities returned at least some of their money after the first year, according to Freedom of Information responses obtained by local government researcher Jack Shaw. 

Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which handed back 69 per cent of its funding, said the Department for Education did not sign off its proposals for the scheme until the “second half of 2022, meaning that recruitment and roll out of the programme could not take place until quarter four”. 

It added that the programme was now “well under way”, including funding for community groups “to reach those furthest from the labour market, available to those who live and work here”. 

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which represents further education colleges in the UK, said the failure to spend Multiply funds in the first year was “disappointing, but not really surprising” because it was a “short term, one-off fund” that local authorities had struggled to absorb. 

He said funding should be provided in a three-year tranche directly to colleges “to build demand, partner with others locally and secure the capacity of expert teachers and support workers to be able to deliver the numeracy shift we all want to see among the adult population”.

Shaw agreed the funding clawback highlighted a “short termist” approach by the government.

“That is the precisely the opposite platform the prime minister stood on this week,” he said of Conservative party conference, which this year has the slogan “long term decisions for a brighter future”.

A government spokesperson said most areas set up “innovative adult numeracy provision” in Multiply’s first year, with 44,000 people starting new courses. 

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