Like the tornados that plague the American midwest, no one knows where Peter Mandelson will touch down next. This week it was in learning and skills and in an instant, once solid-looking structures were ripped up and redeposited in unlikely places. FE found the equivalent of a pick-up truck in its living room with the news that regional development agencies are set to dictate skills strategies and funding.
There is certainly a need for some strategising on skills. Quite who was going to do this under the existing plans was always a bit of a mystery. The Skills Funding Agency was always the contractor but there seemed to be no architect. Was it to be left to colleges and other providers to liaise with local employers in order to come up with funding proposals that they would then put to the SFA? This would create the much-prized, demand-led system but one likely to be unmanageable.
Was the role of skills strategist to fall to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills? The Sector Skills Councils? The National Apprenticeships Service? Or maybe local employment and skills boards?
The question is, are the RDAs any more plausible as orchestrators of a nation's skills and training provision? Sceptics might say that redeveloping brownfield sites does not qualify RDAs for their starring role in education and skills.
This is harsh on RDAs who, as part of their economic inclusion agenda, run education and training projects. Each RDA also devises and leads a regional economic strategy in conjunction with partner organisations including colleges and universities.
Given the importance of education and skills to economic prosperity it would seem to make considerable sense to extend the RDA remit to include a skills strategy. The ability of RDAs to take a longer-term view of economic needs and the skills to meet them should also prove valuable in planning provision.
What may unsettle some is the power that it confers on RDAs to the potential exclusion of providers and other stakeholders. It remains to be seen whether skills and training providers will have a hand in the creation of skills strategies directly.
RDAs certainly seem to have secured themselves a safe berth in the face of a Conservative Party that is at best suspicious of the regional quangocracy and at worst ready to axe RDAs as part of a bonfire of the quangos should they win the next election. The ascendancy of RDAs also illuminates the power struggle within BIS, which was created earlier this year from the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise amp; Regulatory Reform, which was once the home of RDAs.
Much will depend on details still to be worked out by BIS but Lord Mandelson's instincts appear sound. If the RDAs can deliver skills strategies relevant to the economic and employment needs of the English regions as they stand, and provide some sense of what these needs are for the future, then they will bring integrity and foresight to the skills and training agenda. If they serve to interpose a layer of state control and bureaucracy between employers and providers then build the bonfire now.
Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus, E firstname.lastname@example.org.