Before the summer recess, we saw the completion of the committee stage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in the House of Lords. None of the amendments proposed were pressed to a vote, but there is still considerable bemusement at exactly what some aspects of the bill, in particular Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), are actually intended to achieve.
Nearly six hours of debate about LSIPs left peers "confused" and concerned about the "lack of clarity" on their purpose. At the start of the debate, Lord Lucas had set the tone by asking a series of pointed questions and in its attempt to answer them, the government offered responses that simply raised more questions. Lord Adonis made one of those barnstorming speeches that are now quite rare in Parliament about “a bill in search of a policy”. While some peers didn’t agree with him about this, his forensic dismantling of the case for needing LSIPs definitely struck a chord.
Perhaps the most puzzling comments from the minister, Baroness Berridge, on the scope of LSIPs was her observation that “I do not want to underplay it completely, but it has rather been taken to a level that it will not actually have in the bill”, adding that an LSIP “is not a complete economic plan nor a complete local strategy”.
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This tells me what an LSIP is not; so once again, it just made me wonder what it is, what it is for and why it requires legislation to do it.
Regional feedback about the scope of the recently announced LSIP trailblazers would appear to confirm Baroness Berridge's second comment, although a lack of transparency about the winning bids doesn’t help. But taken together, her comments seem to strengthen Lord Adonis’ argument that legislation is just not necessary to set up LSIPs.
The plans are not meant to be comprehensive and so we must assume that they are to get more colleges and providers engaged in specific sectors with the backing of capital funding. The minister’s reference to LSIPs being for technical education prompts the question of how much LSIPs will address local apprenticeship provision if at all, bearing in mind that the employer-driven digital apprenticeship service already articulates real-time demand locally.
It is concerning that the bill will require all relevant providers "to co-operate" with LSIPs, yet only subsequent statutory guidance will set out how the LSIPs themselves may engage with local providers and other stakeholders. This could potentially be a one-way street; the sector must co-operate with LSIPs but LSIPs may have no requirement to work with local providers. It was therefore heartening to hear the Labour Party say that LSIPs should draw on the views of independent training providers and the Liberal Democrats express concern about too much power being given to a small group. Peers understandably wanted to know how LSIPs would sit alongside the skills plans of mayoral combined authorities and LEPs. In her response, the minister said that she wanted LSIPs to avoid having to deal with “a cast of thousands”. Perhaps a better choice of words might have been appropriate when referring to frontline providers doing a fantastic job for their local communities during a very challenging time.
Just like Gillian Keegan did at the AELP national conference in June, the minister avoided giving a direct answer to Lord Lucas’ question on whether LSIPs will be a channel for funding once fully established. No one was fooled by her restricting her answer only to seedcorn funds for the trailblazers. We should remember that a significant aspect of the White Paper was recognising the need to simplify the myriad of FE funding streams and yet in the next breath, the DfE are on the cusp of creating another one.
Fair-mindedness suggests that the pilots should be given a chance. But my fear is that the DfE is so far down the track with them that irrespective of their merits, ministers will doom them to succeed, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them to prove that they are worthwhile. But AELP’s original concern remains that LSIPs could be both a closed shop in terms of local influence and another vehicle to channel funding to favoured colleges and providers.
Jane Hickie is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers