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Devolution and localism: what will happen to colleges?

David Corke, Director of Education and Skills Policy at the Association of Colleges (AoC)

Devolution and localism present both opportunities and risks for colleges. A report released today (22 Sept) – The Long-term Implications of Devolution and Localism for FE in Englandhighlights the benefits colleges could gain if they are able to reinforce their position as key local organisations.

Professor Ewart Keep, Director of SKOPE and author of the report, suggests that colleges have the opportunity to ‘get a foot in the door’ of policy making; they can choose to be ‘players, victims or agenda setters’. Obviously colleges would prefer to be setting the agenda. After all, they’re the experts in what is needed in education and skills training and, by setting the agenda, they make sure the funding is spent where it should be. As a player, they would be taking a more collaborative role, becoming part of a group of organisations working together for the common good. This is a strong position for them to be in if they are to directly affect local policy. Being a victim is simply not an option; otherwise they will be ruled by local and national sources with no say in what happens in either.

The report, researched by the Association of Colleges (AoC), Oxford University and SKOPE and commissioned by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), raises the issue that that many localities don’t yet have the capability or the capacity to manage the budget, but this is a secondary issue.

Instead we need to focus on how we achieve consistency across the country when it comes to funding, when decisions are being taken on a local basis. There is scope for colleges to become key partners and provide their help and support as local leaders get up to speed.

Colleges are the experts in what is needed in the local area. They are, and will always be, a vital part of the local community. Not only are they a significant employer, they provide education and training for anyone who wants it, mostly those aged 16 and above.  They tailor education and training using local market intelligence so that they provide students with the right skills to go on to get jobs. In other words, they are a local service for local people. They can share this knowledge with the local council and inform spending of the adult education budget.

How devolution will be managed is not clear after the change of leadership in the national Government, but we would hope that the process towards devolving adult education funding is given as much time and preparation as possible. This needs to be thoroughly discussed, thought about and planned to ensure that everyone is clear about how it will work – how we will ensure consistency and how national government and agencies will be part of a new localised system.

The UK economy needs a skilled workforce, brought about by engaged employers and supported by colleges, and this will be the backbone of this country’s future economic success. However, we might speculate on whether combined authorities are currently able to determine the best way to spend the funding they get.

If they are not, we will see the same problems emerge as that of the devolution of funding for students with learning disabilities and difficulties. The variation of success has led to provincial and inconsistent decisions and this makes it difficult for anyone to intervene when an authority is slow in making a decision about whether to fund a student who has an education, health and care plan. This creates uncertainty for both the student and the college.

Colleges are currently being buffeted by a lot of changes in policy, as well as coping with area reviews. There have already been a number of college mergers, as they try to create more financially stable colleges and more will follow in the coming months.

Localism should be used as a way to cement that work, not to further destabilise colleges by potentially interrupting the funding they receive for the adults they teach. The knock-on effect will hit hardest at the communities the colleges serve, including employers and students.

What is important, however, is that devolution – if it is well thought through – could bring together colleges and local leaders. This would create a powerful force for good and will ensure that colleges remain at the heart of the skills and education agenda.

David Corke, Director of Education and Skills Policy at the Association of Colleges (AoC)

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