My mission to fuel FE's journey into local authority hands

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
How the React Programme is helping to make raising the age of participation a reality

In the early summer of 2008 I was director of children's services for Dudley, and John Coughlan and I had just passed on the presidency of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) to Maggie Atkinson. Maggie had asked me to continue to lead for the association on the Machinery of Government changes, on which I had been representing the association since they were announced by Gordon Brown in 2007.

It had become increasingly clear to me that the smooth transfer of pound;7 billion to local authorities, and all that goes alongside the funding, could not be guaranteed simply by the actions of Government.

I was old enough - just - to recall the last time the age of participation increased in 1972-73 and I wanted to ensure that we did not just force non-engaged young people into any course with vacancies, but one that genuinely met their needs.

So, with support from ADCS, the Local Government Association (LGA) put in a proposal to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) for a sector-led support programme that would be time-limited and deliberately small to keep costs down and avoid any sort of dependency culture. The aim was to build local authority capacity for the new arrangements, not to provide ongoing support, and last of all to evolve into some sort of field force.

The DCSF agreed to fund the programme, the ADCS and LGA agreed to co- sponsor, with the LGA providing accommodation, and I was flattered to be asked to lead the programme through to August 2010. After the usual considerations - family as much as anything, as the new work would involve being largely London-based - and discussions with my employer, I was released from Dudley to take up the new role from January 2009.

For the first time in my career, I found myself with absolutely no executive authority over anyone or anything, but having a position in which I could bring my experience to bear on government policy and the way it was to be implemented, with a place on the Joint DCSFBIS Programme Board, which had overall responsibility for making the proposals work.

I was rapidly joined by Donald Rae, on secondment from Derbyshire, Jo Baty, on secondment from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), Alison Miller, on secondment from the LGA, James Huke, our project administrator with the job of managing my diary, and a succession of temporary support staff. And that was it - not a huge team.

But we have been ably supported by a number of specialist advisers, notably Sarah Pook from Hampshire on finance, and Jon Sutcliffe and Harry Honour from Local Government Employers. We have punched well above our weight, making some major contributions to policy, and delivering both the High-Level Guide and the Training and Development Programme for well over 1,500 local authority staff between January and March. And we have worked with human resources colleagues in the LSC and local authorities to secure a smooth transfer of more than 750 staff.

Were there any low points? Not really, though sometimes the speed of decision-making and implementation has caused frustrations, but we have worked through it.

What were the high points? It was always clear that the relationship between local authorities and 16-19 learning providers would be key to the new arrangements, and we are proud of our achievements in framing those relationships at national level. We agreed protocols between the LGA and the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum, the Association of Learning Providers, and the Third Sector National Learning Alliance.

And we have built good relationships with the Independent Academies Association, the Association of School and College Leaders, the 157 Group and with several groups of specialist colleges. I have been impressed throughout by colleagues' positive attitude to the changes, with a real will to make them work to the benefit of learners, even when there were real concerns that some of the new commissioners might have pre-conceived ideas about what is best.

And I have been very impressed as I have worked with the nascent new organisations, the Young People's Learning Agency, the Skills Funding Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service. They are not the LSC divided and reborn, but genuinely new organisations operating in different ways. The new arrangements were built around travel-to-learn patterns, with 43 sub-regional groups of local authorities, and the potential for dispute initially seemed high. But again I have been very pleased at the will shown by local authorities to make the new arrangements work.

Perhaps the most exciting debates and discussions were about how we in local authorities and providers could together use the new arrangements to improve outcomes for young people. And how local authorities can join up the transfer of 16-19 commissioning with children's services, economic development and the broader civic agenda, as we move towards raising the universal age of participation to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015.

So, have we done all I had hoped? Yes, in the sense that we have in place all the arrangements for the technical transfer of funding, staffing, and commissioning. No, in the sense that it is only the start of the story. Local authorities and providers are now being challenged by the need to debate what should be commissioned to meet the needs of all young people so that they can fulfil their potential and contribute to the economy.

Will it all go smoothly? Yes, in the technicalities. Will it all be easy? No, of course not, there will be tough decisions, but the new architecture will enable these decisions to be made more openly with effective provider engagement through 14-19 partnerships and Children's Trusts.

John Freeman CBE, Director, React programme, Local Government Association.

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