Further education colleges should be given a formal role in leading local and regional planning on education and skills, a new paper argues.
Colleges already provide informal strategic leadership at a local, sub- regional and regional level and this role should be formalised in order to turn national policy on further education and skills into workable local solutions, the policy paper on local leadership from the 157 Group of colleges says.
Learning and skills need local leadership argues that the recent Machinery of Government (MoG) changes that led to the creation of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and the Young People's Learning Agency restrict colleges' ability to respond to local education and training needs.
"There is clear consensus that the provision of learning and skills in an area needs to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of individuals, employers and communities," the paper says. "It is clear that colleges can and do respond quickly but equally clear that a national planning system cannot be as responsive.
"Colleges represent by far the largest concentration of frontline professional expertise in relation to further education in any locality and it makes sense to draw on all their skills and experience to translate national priorities into workable solutions for local areas."
Mick Fletcher, policy adviser for the group and author of the paper, told FE Focus that arrangements would start to unravel under the new Government and colleges were ideally placed to take things forward.
"For instance, you might have the SFA inviting colleges to pull together local consortia to deliver local education and training needs," he said. "We are entering a period when smaller providers, whether colleges or schools or other providers, are going to be vulnerable and we may be looking to provision that is jointly planned and delivered."
The paper is heavily critical of the recent MoG changes, saying that they heaped further complexity on an already complex situation.
"It is no wonder that many employers and community leaders say that they cannot understand the FE system - indeed, it confuses many professionals," the paper says. "There would be major cost savings, as well as a welcome increase in transparency, if colleges were again trusted to plan provision with their partners, as continues to happen in HE."
Mr Fletcher said that the 157 Group was supportive of Conservative party plans to recreate a Further Education Funding Council and Liberal Democrat plans to create a new Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education by merging FE funding with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
"We support the reduction of costs by getting rid of intermediary bodies and stopping trying to second guess from the centre," he said.
A second policy paper from the 157 Group argues that colleges are crucial to promoting strong communities and governors are a powerful and untapped resource when reconnecting Government and its policies with local people.
"Giving real power to college governors is one way of reconnecting people with the policy process," says Strong colleges build strong communities. "They are well networked into local communities and understand local business as well as what the college can offer.
"It is important, however, that governors have the freedom to shape provision in the light of the aspirations of communities and the requirements of local employers.
"In recent years, colleges have increasingly been driven to respond only to priorities set in Whitehall. This trend needs to be reversed so that once again it is local priorities that set the college agenda."
Equally important is the message conveyed by the college brand, it says. "In the world of further education, the college brand stands out as one of the few stable elements in the landscape," the paper continues.
"This recognition is important in building trust and confidence among potential students. It enables successful colleges to symbolise and promote education across their communities and help focus local aspirations."
Colleges are also vital to promoting more tolerant communities through policies of mutual respect and interfaith dialogue. Additionally, the paper argues that colleges are safe havens for people who may suffer threats and intimidation elsewhere in their communities.
The study concludes: "Colleges are major social assets focused clearly on adding public value and are around for the long term."