RPG trial fires warning shot for regional autonomy

26th February 2010 at 00:00
With barely a month until local authorities take control of 14-19 planning and funding, Alan Thomson reports on both the potential and problems raised by London's practice run

Herding a group of particularly independently minded cats might seem easier than securing consensus on educational priorities across the 32 boroughs that comprise Greater London.

And yet this is what Mary Vine-Morris and her team at the Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) 14-19 London Regional Planning Group must achieve if the proposed machinery of government changes are to be workable, let alone stand a chance of improving education for teenagers across the capital.

It goes without saying that London is unique in the UK due to its population, its borough structure and its educational, training and employment needs. The LSC points out that some 600,000 Londoners lack qualifications, of whom 55 per cent are unemployed. Around a third of the population as a whole is unemployed. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, almost half of jobs in London are filled by people with degree- level qualifications.

Its sheer size and complexity surely makes it the single biggest challenge within the nationwide process of managing the migration of the responsibility for commissioning and funding of 14-19 education across FE from the LSC to local authorities.

Almost pound;940 million was allocated to 16-19 education in London in 200910, of which almost pound;497 million was for FE and pound;371 million for school sixth forms. Around half of learners study outside the boroughs they live in, creating issues for the planning and funding of future provision.

In the 16- to 18-year-old bracket, nine out of 10 are in some form of learning, the highest rate of any English region, but there are higher concentrations of young people not in education and employment in many of the inner boroughs. Differences in achievement rates between the inner and outer boroughs are a persistent feature of education and training across London.

However, while London's unique footprint will create its own challenges, many of the issues experienced will be common to most if not all of England's other local authorities as they wrestle with the task of making the new structures work after the LSC is wound up at the end of March.

The basic challenge of planning 14-19 provision across a complicated network of schools, sixth-form colleges, FE colleges and private and voluntary providers will be one that tests local authorities regardless of their size and circumstances.

The good news is that the signs from London's "dry run", carried out early last year, and from its so-called "wet run" or transition year which began last July, are that the problems that have arisen are not insurmountable.

The capital's Regional Planning Group (RPG), comprising the leaders of the borough councils, employers and other key stakeholders, sets out the priorities for the London area as a whole. These inform the broad shape of the education plans of the 32 boroughs. Each borough then discusses and customises its own provision through its local 14-19 partnership, comprising representatives from all learning providers. The same broad structure is being applied across the country.

Ms Vine-Morris, director of the 14-19 London RPG, said she was "pleasantly surprised" that it could reach a consensus in most cases, although she said there was always the possibility that, in future, it could break down horribly if a borough decided "we are taking our toys away".

In fact, so well have the trials gone that word has it that Iain Wright, the minister for 14-19 reform and apprenticeships, is interested in the London group's findings and is seeking a meeting. His eagerness to find a model that works is understandable given that many in education and local government remain to be convinced that the new procedures will be ready for the April 1 handover and whether they are sustainable.

Ministers may be hoping, perhaps not without reason, that if the new system can be made to work in London, then it will work anywhere.

A fundamental factor emerging from the London trials is the need to build consensus on how to deliver the types of education and training required across an educationally and socially diverse region, and how to do this in the face of the partisan interests of local politicians, officials and providers, like schools and colleges.

Local councils, such as the London boroughs, are used to planning provision across state schools - a task made easier by the fact that they have the power to tell schools what do do.

But councils do not, as yet, wield the same sort of power over colleges. Although their 14-19 provision will in future be commissioned by local authorities, colleges remain autonomous corporations with the freedom, at least as far as the available funding allows, to run their own businesses as they see fit.

In a time of financial plenty the potential for conflict between local authorities and autonomous providers is lessened due to the scope for educational growth, thereby allowing commissioning bodies, as councils will be, to keep everyone happy by awarding providers additional student places.

But, as Ms Vine-Morris says, keeping the peace and forming consensus becomes that much harder in a period when public funding for education is being cut with little prospect of financial improvement in the foreseeable future.

"You can have a choice-led environment where you have lots of money," she said, "but in a period of financial constraint you need to be as efficient as possible. So I think there will be some shift at local and regional level. Local authorities will have to take a hard look at what they have in their area."

The word "shift" may sound innocuous but, as local authorities and regional planning bodies review provision in their areas, it will mean taking money from one provider or type of provision and investing it elsewhere in education. It may also mean shifting resources between areas and boroughs.

An authority can shift resources relatively easily between schools but it is less clear what happens if, for example, it or the RPG decides that there is over-provision at level 3 in one part of the region and that local FE colleges would be better off cutting their A-level provision in favour of local school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges.

It is unclear exactly how a local authority could, if matters came to a head, force a reluctant college to jettison such provision other than through, admittedly persuasive, financial means. The Local Government Association (LGA) voiced this potential problem in its response to the consultation on the National Commissioning Framework (NCF) that will underpin the operation of the new local and regional structures.

"Carrying through such a review will be a major task, and implementing the outcomes will pose major problems in an environment made up of largely autonomous providers," the LGA paper said.

Ms Vine-Morris said: "We are at an important point because the responses to the NCF will set important precedents for change.

"It is always tempting to roll on with what you have. But if you want choice to be made at a local level then you have to be clear about that but without destabilising the whole infrastructure."

The infrastructure in question is supported by a demand-led funding system where money follows the student. This is fine in principal but it creates a market that local authorities will need to moderate.

"By the time we got to the end of the dry run process the penny had dropped about the ability to exercise strategic leadership in a system where 95 per cent of funding is following the learner," Ms Vine-Morris said. "On its own it does not allow you to plan other than through growth."

The potential for "difficult conversations" over funding is not lost on London's local authorities, which will be tasked with pulling the regional plan, and any national priorities, together into a sensible and workable local commissioning strategy.

Frankie Sulke, executive director for children and young people at Lewisham Council, said: "We are not pretending it's going to be easy and that there won't be difficult conversations but if the criteria and aims are clear then I think the decisions get easier to make.

"What we now have in London are local authorities that are ready to play a strategic leadership role and there is a very strong feeling that they are not going to be doing this on their own and that the process will involve providers.

"By involving them in 14-19 partnerships they are very much around the table when it comes to deciding what provision should look like. Providers will be in a better position to have these conversations, even if they are difficult, in a local partnership than with a national quango."

Richard Chambers, principal of Lambeth College, agrees that local is better and his college enjoys excellent relations with the borough.

"My attitude is that this goes beyond institutions," he said. "So my approach is very much a case of how can we help a school become more successful.

"But I think every college must have a clear proposition for their local authority. In our case that's about provision for young people with very modest GCSEs as well as technical, construction-related provision, engineering and employer engagement.

"I think if we can combine that with success rates that are on a par with those in the school sector, it makes it difficult for the local authority to flex its muscles when it comes to our relationship."

The size and type of provision offered by the typical general FE college is likely to give it considerable weight when it comes to those conversations. And if there is one thing that London's practice runs have made explicit, it is the inevitability of difficult conversations.

"I think there is a big over-supply of places in London and that's down to things like a lack of planning between the Building Schools for the Future programme, which included expansion, and the growth of academies," Mr Chambers said. "And the schools lobby is always more powerful than the FE lobby."

However, despite the political clout enjoyed by schools, they may fall foul of the figures on which local authorities and regional planning bodies will base their education and training plans.

For instance, in London, the LSC reckons that in 200809 there were some 5,000 unfilled places at level 3 across the capital, indicating significant over-supply at A-level. At the same time the Government's priorities for expanding apprenticeships are particularly important in the London region, where traditional apprenticeship strongholds such as construction and hospitality are major industries.

So despite Mr Chambers' fears that the schools lobby will be calling the shots at a local level, it may end up being the schools - and, more specifically, school sixth forms - that will find themselves invited to those difficult conversations about shifting provision and resources elsewhere.


Learner numbers 200708

- FE: 97,825 (up 1.7 per cent year on year)

- Work-based learning: 7,369 (up 6.7 per cent year on year)

- School sixth forms: 63,441 (up 1.9 per cent year on year)

FE achievement 200607

- All aims: 75 per cent (77 per cent nationally)

- Full level 2: 69 per cent (70 per cent nationally)

- Full level 3: 68 per cent (69 per cent nationally)

Average A-level points 2008

- London: 681.7; national: 721.1

- Outer London boroughs averaged 80 more points than inner ones

Source: LSC.

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