Analysis - Slow dawning that the 14-19 changes demand greater collaboration

19th June 2009 at 01:00
With only 10 months until local authorities assume strategic control for the age group, the challenges for providers and other stakeholders have never looked greater. Alan Thomson reports

The word on the street is that many learning providers have had precious little meaningful discussion of the impending upheavals in education funding and planning. Those at the Learning and Skills Network's debate on the changes last week painted a picture of an issue so complex that many working in 14-19, including people in schools and colleges, have been putting off detailed discussion.

John Stone, chief executive of the network, which hosted the debate, said afterwards: "The information is that progress has been somewhere between slow and patchy across different parts of the country.

"It is a challenge and we are going to have to give it considerable attention."

The slow progress is cause for concern among those charged with making such an enormous transition happen before the deadline. The Learning and Skills Council will be wound up at the end of March next year, when local authorities and the new Skills Funding Agency and Young People's Learning Agency will assume their various statutory responsibilities.

If there was one clear message to emerge from the debate, it was that all those with a stake in 14-19 education need to work together if the changes are to be successful.

"We need to make sure that people engage in the debate in order to build understanding," said John Freeman, director of the Raising Expectations Action (React) programme, a Local Government Association initiative that aims to ensure a smooth transition to the new framework.

"These new arrangements will depend very largely on relationships."

Mr Freeman was one of three speakers last Wednesday at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. Speakers barely touched on how the shake-up affects adult learning, but that was not its remit.

Another speaker, Paul Head, principal of the College of North East London, said: "We are ill-prepared as a sector. What we need is our own React programme."

The third speaker, Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the changes presented the opportunity for more integrated provision by removing the "unnecessary differences" between colleges, schools, academies and training providers.

During the debate, panellists and audience members discussed ways of organising and delivering 14-19 education that rely less on institutional and geographic territorialism and more on partnerships to deliver what is best for learners, wherever they are based and whatever their educational needs.

This means that competition and the desire of organisations to protect and increase their educational market will have to give way to greater collaboration and meeting learners' needs through partnerships between all providers, whether schools, colleges or independents, the speakers said.

Mr Freeman added: "If we take seriously the idea that no one institution can provide all of a learner's needs, then we must move away from institutional autonomy towards partnership provision."

Mr Head commented: "It is about being less of a little islander and contributing more to the overall success. It is going to require us to think quite differently about where we are as providers. Some of this will require organisational change."

Despite an apparent willingness to abandon institutional interests in favour of what best serves learners, some at the debate foresaw problems. It was suggested that providers, such as schools and colleges, are systemically predisposed to maintaining their institutional interests and stability, and this predisposition may not always be in the best interests of learners.

Tim Emmett, development director of the CfBT Education Trust, said: "What we see in learning in the colleges and schools arena is a high degree of producer capture: they appear to be running everything for consumers but actually are running things to maintain their own stability.

"My challenge is getting them to loosen up the supply side and let new players in. They have got to produce a proper market, not a public sector market - then give learners money to spend on education."

One of the big worries for colleges is that by handing the power to plan and fund all 14-19 education to local authorities, they will lose some of the autonomy and flexibility they have gained since incorporation in 1993. They fear that local authorities may not fully understand the extent to which colleges have become independent, business-like institutions. Some councils, they worry, may "revert to type" by adopting a paternalistic, or worse, approach to their dealings with colleges from next April.

"Some councillors and councils do not understand the way in which colleges have improved in the past 16 years. There is a risk that colleges will be treated as second-class citizens," said Mr Gravatt.

He also said there was concern that some local authorities simply may not be up to the job of managing all 14-19 education.

Mr Stone of LSN said: "There are issues about local authorities taking a larger role in FE because of the mismatch between local authority areas and what drives them and what drives an FE college."

But Mr Freeman said councils did not want to go back to the days of directly managing post-16 education. "Local authorities are looking forward to the new commissioning arrangements, recognising that the success or otherwise will depend not just on the statutory framework but also on the quality of relationships between local authorities and providers," he said.

Colleges are not the only ones to have concerns about local authorities' role in planning and funding 14-19. A survey commissioned by the network found that 40 per cent of parents and young people felt they could not trust their local authority to do a better job than was already being done. Just less than 15 per cent felt that local authorities would be an improvement.

Almost eight out of 10 parents had no idea that local authorities were to gain these extra responsibilities, according to the poll by YouGov. However, the survey also indicated that once parents realise who is in charge from next April, they are likely to expect councils to weed out poor performance. Just over 45 per cent agreed that councils should close courses that are badly taught, even if that meant the subject was no longer available locally. Almost a third of young people felt the same.

Mr Freeman said that technically it would probably fall to the Skills Funding Agency to decommission courses and colleges. But in practice, he said, local authorities would wield considerable influence in identifying and seeking action over substandard provision, along with the Skills Funding Agency, the Young People's Learning Agency and Ofsted.

"A local authority may not have all the legal powers but it will have the moral and practical duty to ensure that provision is as good as possible for local people," Mr Freeman said. "If a council sees something going wrong, then it must do something."

The survey also revealed issues about the distances people are prepared to travel to study. This is of interest to providers since there is concern that local authority boundaries, both in the geographical and the political senses, may make it more difficult to plan for and fund those students who wish to study outside their local areas.

"On one level it is straightforward, because in the system we will inherit we know that 300,000 young people are educated post-16 in boroughs in which they do not live," Mr Freeman said. "We know that young people will travel further.

"We do not want to encourage or even allow local authorities to commission new provision simply because of the postcode in which it has been located.

"Commissioning decisions have to be made on the grounds of what is needed."

React is keen to run similar debates around the country so that providers, local authorities and other stakeholders can decide on the next practical steps.

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