When the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) made the decision to survey colleges and training providers about its performance as a funding body and regulator, it must have expected some criticism. The replies have not disappointed.
More than 260 FE providers responded, and they were scornful of claims that the agency has reduced the burden of bureaucracy. SFA chief executive Geoff Russell had previously claimed to be creating a market-driven, customer-driven system where the agency gets out of the way of providers. But nearly 60 per cent of providers think there has been little progress in cutting red tape during the first year. More than half said they are not given the information they need to make business decisions. And more providers thought the SFA was ineffective in managing the quality and capacity of FE than those who backed it.
Given all that, it is surprising that 63 per cent of providers think the agency is effective overall in its role. Even so, if it were a college or training provider, it would only just be scraping past the minimum level of performance.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, is relatively upbeat, saying the SFA is heading in the right direction, at least partly because it is having to cope with far fewer staff than its predecessor, the Learning and Skills Council. "All the complaints were that there was too much control and interference. Micro-management was the biggest complaint. There's no question that doesn't really describe today's situation," he said.
Providers reported problems with initiatives such as the Approved College and Training Organisation Register, which was intended to simplify the process of bidding for contracts - but Mr Hoyle said they were "teething troubles".
The SFA also says its restructure will allow frontline staff to be more responsive to providers and take initiative. But with providers also complaining about the timeliness of information and calling for more face- to-face contact, the reduction in the number of staff could be just as likely to exacerbate problems.
Some changes were unreservedly popular: the single budget for all adult provision was widely regarded as an improvement, and providers welcomed the attempt to announce allocations at an earlier stage. But the SFA believes the greatest significance of the survey is that it has carried it out at all. It says it shows a quango that is willing to consider how its "customers" are being served.
Some in FE have taken the point. "The pressure has been on providers to talk to customers and get feedback, and we've done that for many a long year. It's probably right that funding agencies subject themselves to the same process," Mr Hoyle said.
It is, however, a regulator as well as a funding body, and a regulator cannot be too concerned with pleasing the people it regulates all the time. The SFA will have to tread a fine line.
SFA SURVEY: THE VERDICT
60% of providers think there has been little progress in cutting red tape during the first year
63% of providers think the agency is effective overall in its role.