Skills devolution: a two-tiered adult education system?

Devolving the AEB is an opportunity to align adult education and skills more closely to the needs of local communities - but is that what is happening?

Ian Pretty

Are the opportunities offered by the devolution of the AEB being capitalised on?

Skills devolution is an opportunity to make the system more efficient and flexible – but it may not achieve this potential if it is not implemented well. Responsibility for around half of the adult education budget (AEB) has just been devolved to six mayoral combined authorities and London. This represents an opportunity to align adult education and skills more closely to the needs of local communities and to local industrial strategies. But there are also risks. The next government and local stakeholders should work collaboratively to ensure that skills devolution is implemented effectively and that lessons are shared across the whole system.

Specifically, in relation to AEB, devolution is considered to offer greater opportunities to align funding with local needs, extend the focus on target groups and priority areas, and explore more innovative career progression routes. However, the extent of the freedom available to authorities is questioned by some, given that the majority of the AEB must be spent on statutory entitlements, leaving little room to radically reshape the offer.

To examine these issues in more detail, we have today released a publication on the impact of AEB devolution in England. Many of our colleges within combined authority areas spoke positively about the potential of devolution. Wider evidence suggests that devolution of power and resources can result in greater integration and joined-up working, more tailored services informed by understanding of local challenges, improved accountability and local ownership, and better outcomes. Many respondents spoke about the power of devolution to provide a framework that facilitated greater collaboration between stakeholders. 

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News: Sadiq Khan calls for skills devolution in London to be extended 

Fragmentation and complexity

There are, of course, also challenges around skills devolution that are associated with fragmentation and complexity, inconsistencies and inequalities, lack of local expertise and capacity, inefficiencies and loss of economies of scale, and conflict between national and local priorities. Some of the negative consequences of devolution have been experienced by those from outside, rather than inside combined authorities. A number of our colleges from outside combined authority areas told us about how they have found their ability to deliver provision into combined authorities has been massively curtailed – in some cases, this has resulted in multimillion-pound cuts to their AEB allocations. These colleges also reflected a negative experience of navigating the increased bureaucracy and complexity of the new system, leading to a great deal of frustration.

It is in this relationship between combined and non-combined authority areas that one of the greater tensions around devolved skills emerges. Generally, there is a broad range of dissatisfaction with the rigidity of the current adult education funding system. In our recent election statement, we called on the government to adopt one of the recommendations of the Augar review to remove the current age caps, so that a first level 2 and/or level 3 qualification is available free to all adult learners, whether they are in or out of work. This is the kind of flexibility that will undoubtedly be within the power of combined authorities to grant.

The priority for the combined authorities at this stage has been to ensure a smooth transition to new arrangements and minimise disruption. But over time, combined authorities will have more flexibility to decide to provide entitlements to qualifications in line with their own regional priorities. As such, while devolution presents a great opportunity for combined authority areas, we also need to look at how the adult education budget is being used across England. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating a two-tiered system in England for adult education. 

Ian Pretty is chief executive of the Collab Group of colleges

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