Politicians can give the impression that localism and devolution will solve everything, including a shortage of affordable housing, poor transport links and – importantly to colleges – a lack of local skilled workers. Worryingly, some think localism will also deal with funding cuts from Whitehall.
The Association of Colleges is working with principals, academics and policymakers to assess the consequences of moving to a local system. The pace of change differs between areas, and the future is hard to predict when so much rests on the spending review on 25 November.
In our submission to the spending review, we said the government should abandon mechanistic, restrictive funding processes being used for adult skills training in favour of outcome agreements. These would be drawn up by colleges and set out objectives agreed with partners including councils, combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships. They would set out the skills needs of the area and solutions to address them.
In areas where skills policy and funding decisions are devolved, colleges would work more closely with local partners to ensure local businesses are able to train staff.
Outcome agreements have worked well internationally, particularly when they have avoided a national template, financial penalties and being just about numbers. The focus shouldn’t be output of qualifications but the social impact of colleges. Good models have worked in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
There are, however, issues to be resolved. The devolution of skills policy and funding will not hide the fact that colleges, unlike schools, aren’t protected from government funding cuts. Autonomy for colleges is sacrosanct, and national bureaucracy shouldn’t simply be replaced by local bureaucracy.
We must also avoid focusing solely on “exciting” sectors such as digital media or advanced manufacturing. Replacement demand for less glamorous sectors, often in the service industries, more often than not outstrips expansion demand.
To ensure success for outcome agreements, their rationale and purpose needs to be determined, supported and communicated clearly. Outcome agreements need to measure impact, not what is easy to count. Sufficient time should be taken to get incentives right, and the direction needs to be clear.
Outcome agreements must identify local priorities in the context of a wider economic framework, and engaging employment partners across the area is essential. The outcome agreements also need to be underpinned by robust data. A change in culture must take place, driven by strong leadership.
We must not forget that colleges have provided education for years. They are adept at responding to demand from individuals and businesses, strengthening local economies and providing skills and opportunities. Outcome agreements are simply an evolution towards the local, rather than the national.
David Corke is the Association of Colleges’ director of education and skills policy. TES is the premier media partner for the AoC annual conference on 17-19 November. www.aocannualconference.co.uk