When a Government is obliged to restructure, reorder and rescind things of its own making it’s clear that its lost its nerve, lost its way or both. So it is with further education and skills. Ministers have been told what they ought to do – the Foster report, the interim Leitch review and the Conservatives opposition have charted the right course. The Government should give FE more independence; give employers a greater role in driving a demand-led skills agenda; and dismantle the bureaucracy and red-tape which is stifling innovation and excellence in the sector. It should redesign qualifications to impart and test needed competences; and breakdown the rigidity between employers, FE, HE and schools to deliver the best opportunities for young people. Yet there was very little of substance in the FE White Paper published earlier this year and the Bill announced in the Queens speech earlier this week appears to offer little more force or clarity.
The only significant announcement in the FE White Paper was a new Quality Improvement Agency (QIA), bringing together the improvement and development activities of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, the DfES Standards and Skills for Life Units, the Learning and Skills Council and the Adult Learning Inspectorate. This restructuring will do nothing to reduce the organisations that currently have a monitoring, inspection or improvement role in FE Colleges. Although the Education and Inspection Bill merges The Adult Learning Inspectorate with Ofsted, the new Quality Improvement Agency will bring the total number of bodies back up to 17.
Judged by what has been spun, the Bill is not a vehicle to take forward the agenda of deregulation outlined in the Foster Report on FE. The Education Select Committee found that the ‘present planning and funding mechanisms for skills training appear incoherent, over-complex, burdensome, and often act as a barrier to further education’s development rather than a support to it’ and that the changes suggested in the White Paper on Further Education ‘may not be radical enough’.
Worse still, it seems that though the Government is give FE colleges the right to award degrees, simultaneously the LSC will take new legal powers to sack college principles and senior managers. So it’s clear that the Government doesn’t know whether to deregulate the sector or regulate it still more.
We must have the courage to allow FE colleges to innovate and excel. That means less regulation and more independence. The sector is grown-up but it continues to be nursed and nannyed by this patronising Government.
It is expected that Leitch – wisely – will want to give a greater role to the employer-led Sector Skills Councils (SSCs). The only significant change to the Learning and Skills Council likely is the closure of its local offices. With businesses typically national or local and the Government only a week or two ago advocating a greater role for localities in economic development, this regionalisation is unwelcome and unwanted. A much more radical approach is needed if we are to create a system that responds to the needs of learners and employers.
Provisions to change the regulations for training levies may open the way for their extension but extra investment must lead to more than remedial training. We should refocus investment to deliver high-order skills. Demographic change means that over 70% of the 2020 workforce has already completed compulsory education. It is vitally important that we up-skill and re-skill those already in work to maximise their potential and meet the needs of a dynamic economy.
Sector Skills Agreements (SSA’s) – the plans put together by the SSCs currently have no statutory status. Leitch may propose ways of giving the SSCs greater power over the provision of training through modern apprenticeships and voluntary levies and over quality control through licence to practice. It is also possible that Leitch may propose a new regional tier to the SSCs which we would consider unhelpful. The SSCs are not mentioned in the Government’s release on the bill. When will the Government set Further Education colleges free? Should powers be transferred from the LSC to the SSCs? Will an extra tier of bureaucracy be imposed through the expansion of the SSCs with no significant reform of the LSC? These are the kind of questions that need answers. Answers the Secretary of State speaking in the Queens Speech debate failed to give and that the Bill is itself is also unlikely to provide.