Why evolution of devolution could boost FE in London

Skills devolution was a sound idea when Ken Livingstone suggested it - and it's a sound idea today, says David Hughes

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wants FE funding devolved. Sounds familiar?

It was difficult today not to feel a strong sense of déjà vu as I headed to a meeting at City Lit, that beacon of excellence and opportunity for adult learners in London. The mayor of London was there to celebrate City Lit’s 100th birthday and to launch his plans for greater devolution. 

I was there with the leaders of London’s colleges for a private roundtable with the mayor to discuss how his leadership is going to work in partnership with colleges to meet the needs of London and of Londoners.


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Colleges and skills devolution

It took me back to my first ever meeting as newly-appointed London regional director of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), way back in 2005, at the official opening of the City Lit building. I spoke (we had contributed some of the capital) alongside the mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, as he set out his “number one ambition” of taking over the LSC’s £1.7 billion London post-16 budget and replacing the LSC in London with his own organisation. It was not the warmest welcome to a new role I have ever had.

Despite a strong argument for devolution, the formal review of the mayor’s powers in London (led, incidentally, by David Miliband, then a junior minister) concluded that the Learning and Skills Council should remain in place. The deal we struck (with Bill Rammell, then skills minister), was to establish the London Skills and Employment Board and to work closely with the mayor and with the boroughs to ensure that Londoners got the support and services they needed.

It was a good plan which worked, to an extent, but was always hampered by the national rules and central control from Whitehall, which should and could have been loosened. The momentum we had then for a partnership with the mayor seemed to be lost as Mr Livingstone was replaced by Boris Johnson, the credit crunch hit in 2008 and the coalition government came into power in 2010.

A partnership between the mayor and London's colleges

It was nice to be back and discussing a positive agenda of partnership between the mayor and London’s colleges. The devolution this year of the adult education budget (AEB) has been steered confidently and sensitively by the mayor, his deputy Jules Pipe and the officials. But as we know, devolving the AEB is a far cry from proper devolution of post-18 education and skills, as the document launched today shows so clearly.

My input was to emphasise how pleased colleges are that the mayor is taking a personal interest in this area of policy. He was at pains to make clear how vital he believes colleges are to the future of London, and how he wants to use his office to convene, lead and challenge for and on behalf of colleges. I set out the unique times in which we live, with a new political consensus across the political parties in England that every community deserves and needs a thriving and vibrant college.

The impact of funding cuts

I was clear though that the 31 per cent cut in overall funding for colleges in the past decade has had serious consequences – on communities, students and staff. Fewer learning opportunities, less teaching time, reduced enrichment and college pay lagging other sectors are not going to help deliver what London needs. I invited the mayor to join us in our campaigning, to once again be part of the celebration we make each year through #LoveOurColleges and to put pressure on the government to invest in colleges.

I came away from the roundtable believing that we have a mayor in London who understands colleges, appreciates the multiple roles they play and who will help us make the case for investment. A mayor who recognises that this is a partnership in which college leaders will be critical for his social and economic ambitions. A partnership in which he can help us as we strengthen the consensus across political parties, with employers and with a wide range of stakeholders, that colleges really do matter as community anchor organisations. Not so much a case of déjà vu then, more one of espère pour demain.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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