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The sands are shifting and a step backwards is risky

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In education terms, the line between autonomy and subordination is thinner than you might think. The terms framing the debate are more fluid than ever. In the schools sector, the explosion of academies under the Coalition was based on the assumption that this status would bring increased autonomy, over everything from staffing to the curriculum. Yet, as William Stewart argued in last week’s TES, many academy heads now find themselves overseen by multi-academy trusts wielding far more power over them than local authorities ever did.

And while it was the prospect of greater freedom and flexibility (initially at least) that attracted schools to the idea of becoming academies, the next expansion of the programme will consist of refugees from the sixth-form college sector.

Jumping from the good ship FE

The institutions that opt to jump ship from FE will, conversely, be giving up the autonomy that comes with being an incorporated college. It’s far from clear how many colleges will decide to make the move but, for those that do, the prospect of closer links with schools (not to mention a £300,000-plus VAT windfall for many) will have outweighed the much trumpeted benefits of incorporation.

The additional burdens faced by colleges-turned-academies will be myriad: more prescriptive funding agreements; greater vulnerability to new school legislation; increased regulatory tasks to comply with public sector status. And the potential loss of, or restriction in, their capacity for offering higher education and 19-plus provision, not to mention overseas recruitment, would be a massive deterrent for many.

But those in the know say that the level of interest in academy conversion is greater than had been anticipated. For some colleges, it seems that security is the new autonomy – and sufficient to entice them to return to the schools sector where they resided until incorporation.

Local authorities for local people

It was the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 that resulted in colleges being freed from local authority control. An intriguing point made at the weekend by Jeremy Corbyn was that authorities should be brought back into the fold and given a new role of planning and overseeing FE provision at a local level.

Labour’s mayoral candidates in London and Bristol – Sadiq Khan and Marvin Rees respectively – are proposing “to use their powers to coordinate FE”, Mr Corbyn told TES.

His glowing appraisal of the benefits of a local authority “family” to keep an eye on education provision marks a profound shift from recent analysis. The Conservative narrative portrays the “dead hands” of local education authority (LEA) control, which, they argue, led to stagnation and decline in schools.

So is it time for LEAs to return to oversee FE? Perhaps the more pertinent question is: are they needed? It could be said that, with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) set to be handed a key role in the devolution agenda and given the responsibility for managing skills funding, the re-creation of a “middle tier” for FE could already be on the way. With it will come a new layer of decision-makers for FE providers to court.

Irrespective of whether you agree that academies are the new sixth-form colleges and LEPs are the new LEAs, the sands are undeniably shifting. But local authorities returning to FE? For colleges – which are already struggling to keep in the good books of two government departments, two funding agencies, FE and sixth-form commissioners, Ofsted and local employers – this jump back in time could be a step too far.


This is an article from the 12 February 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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