The launch by the Department for Education of its Skills Accelerator prospectus last week was the first step in implementing its major reform programme announced in the Skills for Jobs White Paper in January. It moves us on from asking what the White Paper means to seeing what the government is actually going to do differently. To be fair, White Papers are like that; they are a statement of intent, not a plan of action, so it’s always important not to jump to judgement too hastily.
Some of the response to the White Paper has been broadly positive and hopeful, but doubters have questioned how radical and new the thinking is, whether it goes far enough and whether any significant changes will follow. The one unifying concern has been to point to the lack of long-term funding to back up the ambition and rhetoric; and the only realistic prospect of that is in a spending review later this year.
Budget 2021: Rishi Sunak's plans for further education
Skills for Jobs White Paper: What does it propose?
The Skills Accelerator prospectus is the first of what could be many actions by which we can judge the White Paper and the commitment from this government. Sadly, because the spending review only committed funding for one year (sensible given the circumstances of the pandemic), the funding has to be spent quickly, necessitating a very short bidding window at a very busy time for colleges. Better to have money for this year than not, of course, but it is challenging to pull together the bids and to be able to spend quickly but wisely and with long-term impact.
Making the most of the Skills for Jobs White Paper
More importantly, the prospectus sends some important signals to colleges and stakeholders about the vision the government has for further education. It covers Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) and the Strategic Development Fund (SDF), which were both proposed as elements of the Skills for Jobs White Paper. Together, the aim is to increase the capacity, autonomy, and authority of colleges to work together and with employer organisations as part of a skills system that can meet the changing needs of employers and deliver long-term strategic outcomes.
The thinking is built on examples from colleges across the country that have helped to enhance productivity at the firm level, through innovation (rather than invention), knowledge transfer (especially for SMEs), improvements in workforce productivity and, ultimately, through skills and training. The theory is that the system will deliver better outcomes if key and emerging markets can be identified and skills and training aligned to smooth the workings of the labour markets that support them.
The prospectus will inject much-needed investment into colleges and will undoubtedly enhance the support they can give to employers and communities. I expect there to be a lot of very strong bids from collaborative groups of colleges that have been preparing their thinking and joint-working in line with the thinking in the Commission on the College of the Future, which stimulated lots of really good discussions.
By responding well to this with strong bids, colleges will show once again that they can and will step up to the challenges and opportunities in their areas – of economy, community, inclusion and growth. In doing that, the college sector will enhance its influence in shaping the wider education and skills system and attract the investment needed to expand the role colleges can play within their localities. So, it’s a good start, but we must not lose sight of the other changes that are needed to truly release the potential of colleges.
As the prospectus notes, one critical change is to streamline the funding and accountability system that colleges work under, but there are also important reforms in workforce, governance and qualifications. All those changes must support colleges to have more autonomy to deliver to meet local community, learner and employer needs because the current system is too much of a straitjacket. I am sure that many of the proposals from colleges in response to the Skills Accelerator prospectus showcase how flexible and agile colleges can be if the funding allows them.
Two other tricky issues – geography and devolution – need to be navigated, and it looks as though the government has decided to let them play out rather than play a leadership role itself. In essence, the Department for Education is inviting colleges, as part of their bids, to agree and determine what constitutes their economic geography, in discussion with employer representative bodies. They may or may not choose boundaries that reflect current political, partnership and administrative areas. It will be interesting to see what emerges and whether that flexibility is a strength or weakness of the approach.
The devolution issues are perhaps even more interesting with a White Paper in that arena much-delayed already. At the AoC, we have keenly promoted the principle throughout this reform agenda of building on what is already working well, so we expect colleges to want to work with mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) and skills advisory panels (SAPs), as well as business representative organisations. The MCAs and SAPs have already worked closely with colleges to understand local skills needs, so that intelligence and recent plans are an obvious point to build on through the Skills Accelerator process.
The investment through the Skills Accelerator fund is the first step in the reforms, and it’s in the right direction. So a good start on what is likely to be a long-term and profound set of changes.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges