Giving colleges more freedom has been one of the great promises of FE minister John Hayes. Now colleges have responded with their vision of how this might work: they want up to half their adult skills budget freed up to address local priorities instead of national targets.
This proposal is at the heart of the final report of an inquiry into colleges and their local communities by adult education body Niace, the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group. Led by Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp (pictured, right), it argues that the role of colleges is not just to provide qualifications to meet the skills needs of local employers, but to reach out to marginalised and disadvantaged groups, and that funding should reflect this.
It proposes that, from next September, colleges rated outstanding or good should be allowed to invest a quarter of their adult skills budget in provision that does not meet national targets for qualifications. By 2014, they should be able to use half their funding in this way.
"We argued that if Government could give greater flexibility to the over-rigorous funding regime and relax other 'red tape', then colleges could and would deliver more in terms of community leadership," Baroness Sharp said. "But they cannot do this alone. It requires more co-investment by individuals and employers; better information for the public and greater local accountability."
Niace chief executive David Hughes said the inquiry had been carried out with the co-operation of the Government, with observers from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on board. "We are expecting and hoping that a lot of these recommendations will be taken up and pursued vigorously," he said.
He offered two examples of how colleges might make use of the "innovation code" cash. If a new employer was moving to a college's area, it could quickly offer pre-employment training to ensure the local workforce was ready to start immediately, even if the course was too short for a full qualification. Or colleges could offer courses to engage some of the hardest-to-reach learners, who are often not ready for formal qualifications.
One consequence of this is that it would be hard to compare the work of colleges or to form a national picture of provision, since it would be so diverse. Colleges would be accountable locally by publishing a plan and reporting back on what they had done. Mr Hughes said the national picture could still be gathered by using surveys.
The report also brings into question the viability of the Leitch targets for 2020 - such as 90 per cent of adults achieving level 2 qualifications - if large portions of the adult skills budget are used for provision that does not result in qualifications. But Mr Hughes said that is not necessarily the case: bringing hard-to-reach learners back into education could increase the overall demand for learning, although it might require funding contributions from the individual or employer.
As well as allowing funding to be used for innovative provision, the inquiry recommended the Canadian model, where as well as advising on apprenticeships and training, colleges become centres for other kinds of advice and information to help small businesses get established. It also proposed a dedicated college or sector leadership centre, which would support principals in a new role where they are not simply responding to priorities set by the Government. And the inquiry recommended that, by September 2013, the Government should establish three-year rolling budgets to help colleges plan for the future.