From education to employment

Crystal clear on transparency

Kim Thorneywork, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, pledges her commitment to transparency in FE.

In a world of ever-expanding horizons, European, international and global aspects and opportunities are increasingly commonplace and, unsurprisingly, the world of further education is no exception to that.

Interest from afar in our own FE story continues to grow and at the Agency we receive many international delegations keen to understand how over three million learners in England benefit from our unique approach to further education.

Yet hand in hand with scale and those widened horizons goes an inevitable proliferation of information, the ‘gift’ – if you will – of the 21st century, where technology gives us the luxury of limitless knowledge at our fingertips.  I’m a great believer that this plethora of information creates opportunity but conscious too that it brings with it new challenges. How do we make those large amounts of information trustworthy, transparent and above all accessible to the outside world?

The Government made its commitment to transparency crystal clear in its Open Public Services White Paper last year, which you may recall said that: “(services)…must be responsive to the people they serve – held to account by citizens and their elected representatives”.  I am confident that the further education sector is well ahead of the game on this and that we are already delivering on much of that commitment throughout FE.

At the Agency, I’m determined that we echo the Government’s commitment to transparency in the way we work with you in the sector.  Of course, our own role is not one of policy, but of one of delivery and implementation.  So it is my job to ensure that the Government’s policy on further education is delivered in an accountable way for our customers – for our partner organisation, the Department of Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS) and colleges and training organisations – so that the Government’s spirit of transparency and openness shines through.

Largely speaking, the information we hold at the Agency is key data for and from the further education sector. This data allows us to unlock doors in FE and make sound business decisions on behalf of the sector.  But ownership of important data demands responsible management.   So it goes without saying that we must – and do – respond readily and effectively to all requests for public information.  You may be surprised to hear that we receive on average more than 100 information requests a week – Freedom of Information and Data Protection – through our information rights team, plus requests from MPs and the public through our parliamentary team and media enquiries through our press office.  Rightly, we are committed to meeting our obligations to respond to these requests.

Making data and information accessible is fundamental in supporting people to make choices about what they learn and how they learn it. It’s a cost-effective, dynamic way to help our customers, who are at the heart of further education.  If FE is to work effectively in such a way that funding follows the learner’s choice, we need to ensure that the data we hold is freely available through the National Careers Service, through FE Choices and, looking ahead,  through third party information sources, as is very much the case in higher education. And as we approach the launch of 24+ Advanced Learning Loans this has never been more important.

In a further commitment to transparency, each time the Agency makes changes to the way we fund FE we are committed to testing this collaboratively with you, so we can hear the voice of the sector advising us along the way.   In most areas of the Agency’s work we have established sector-led groups to work through difficult and detailed policy implementation issues.  We have our Advisory Board, the FE Technical Advisory Group, an Equality Duty and Challenge Group, a Localism Strategy Group, and the Qualifications Approval Group as examples.

And later this year, through the Provider Portal, we will be streamlining all data so that colleges, training organisations and employers will be able to access their contractual information online.

Listening to your feedback is an important demonstration of our commitment to openness too.  We are actively exploring how we make our data truly “open” and this is central to delivering the Government’s Transparency Agenda. We are working with BIS and the Department for Education to improve access to data under the review led by our Minister, Matthew Hancock, and the Cabinet Office, which was announced in the Open Data White Paper last October.

It’s not a challenge we can win on our own, but with the Agency as an integral part of the sector we can do so together.  For where transparency holds court there are no barriers, just one common cause to champion the very best for all learners in further education.

Kim Thorneywork is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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