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Judge reform on learner progress, not on money

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The rationale behind the idea of devolving skills provision to the English regions is a simple one. Economic needs vary hugely across the country, and it is difficult to argue that allowing skills training to be tailored to the specific shortages and requirements of a particular area would not be beneficial.

A few years ago, the reasoning behind a new regional approach to further education in another part of the UK was remarkably similar. When the Scottish government announced its plans to reform the college sector it stressed that larger, regionalised colleges, created through a series of mergers, would be better able to serve their local economies. The new setup would also allow local authorities and businesses to establish closer working relationships with FE institutions and therefore improve pathways for learners.

In the years that followed, the number of colleges in Scotland dropped significantly, and now, the sector is organised into 13 college regions, most with just one, large institution. Two years after most of those mergers took place, the jury is still out on how beneficial the changes have been.

The government still insists that millions will be saved annually. Just last week, business representatives told a parliamentary committee that college leavers were now “slightly more prepared for work”. However, the Federation of Small Businesses also stressed that while it had expected increased responsiveness to the labour market and enhanced employer engagement, there was still “some way to go”.

Change takes time. But there are further lessons to be learned from the Scottish experience. One is that reform of this magnitude never takes place in a vacuum. North of the border, regionalisation coincided with significant cuts to government budgets, along with plans to re-introduce national bargaining.

The same applies to devolution. The skills sector south of the border is in a state of change, with colleges already embroiled in the process of area reviews, which are expected to lead to a reduction in the overall number of institutions. And there is the ever-increasing focus on apprenticeships and the growth of that scheme in order to meet the government’s 3-million target by 2020.

The second lesson to be learned is the impact of uncertainty. An uncertain future in terms of funding, as well as government priorities, continues to be a significant factor in the Scottish FE landscape – both at an institutional and individual staff level. And in England, TES’ analysis of the preparations for the devolution of skills funding reveals just how much of the vitally important detail behind how exactly the new funding arrangements in a devolved system will work is yet to be established. There will also be further uncertainty created by devolution itself: removing a national funding structure in favour of individualised regional ones – likely to be very different from one another in how they operate – will, by its very nature, remove a certain amount of predictability for all those involved.

These factors, along with the ever more difficult financial climate that skills training takes place in, cannot be an excuse for equating change with improvement.

A number of leading figures in the sector told me this week that they expect that the new funding arrangements will lead to some change in provision, with a degree of disruption appearing inevitable. But devolution is bound to fail learners if combined authorities end up assessing the suitability of providers purely on financial grounds.

Ultimately, and quite rightly, the reforms will be judged according to one thing: whether they result in improved progression routes into employment for learners of all ages.

@JBelgutay

This is an article from the 11 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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