From education to employment

Funding and accountability reform must not sideline independent training providers

Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) 

On the face of it, funding and accountability might not seem like the most exciting issues facing the FE sector at the moment. But we shouldn’t lose sight of significant regulatory reform on the horizon.

The 2021 Skills for Jobs White Paper introduced a blueprint for new accountability and funding simplification, and an initial consultation followed last summer. However, as a result of further devolution pledged in the Levelling Up White Paper, further consultation has been necessary. This is now live on the Department for Education (DfE) website and closes next Thursday (21 September).

The aim is to simplify the FE funding system, which I know providers will welcome. But as it stands, the plans fall frustratingly short of what could be positive reforms for the whole sector. 

Here’s four considerations: 

ITPs are fundamental to adult education, not just ‘gap fillers’

There are some great principles in the new proposals- including simplification, more autonomy and multi-year contracting. But as ever, the DfE’s institutional bias means colleges are set to benefit, rather than the principles applying to all types of FE providers. Surely the focus should be on giving learners and employers more choice. 

The initial proposals fundamentally misunderstood the role of Independent Training Providers (ITPs), and worryingly, we don’t seem to have moved away from this position. ITPs deserve much more than to be seen as ‘gap fillers’. This terminology was not only disrespectful, but it simply doesn’t reflect the crucial role of ITPs in delivering adult education.

Significant changes to funding methodology

We expect big changes in the funding methodology- not just nationally, but in devolved regions too, through a new national funding model. Qualifications will be funded according to a new set of funding bands, each with its own funding rate. AELP would like to see simpler set of funding rates- each reflecting the true cost of delivery- with regular reviews. That latter point is crucial- as it stands, Adult Education Budget (AEB) funding rates have not been updated for over ten years.

In devolved areas DfE proposes a transition to a funding model distribution more closely based on need. This could have a significant impact on devolved allocations in some devolved areas where funding is already decentralised. This change may mean less funding is available in certain areas in the future. AELP believes that the government needs to be more ambitious with adult education and increase its investment in the AEB which has lost over 50% of its value over the last ten years. The reinvestment in adult education would as a by-product mean the impact of redistributing and displacing existing capacity would reduce significantly. 

An uncertain future for traineeships?

Traineeships have proven positive outcomes for those furthest from the labour market. We know employer demand is high too, but with such a crowded field, traineeships often get overlooked. Within the proposals, there is a rather cryptic statement on the future of 19-24 traineeships. DfE plan to undertake further work and return with an update later in the year. Could we see traineeships become a pre-apprenticeship programme? An interesting prospect. Another way to boost learner participation would be the introduction of a training allowance, funded from the current underspend.

What about community learning?

We are concerned that the consultation significantly downplays the value of adult community learning – and entry-level provision in general. This is now a worrying, reoccurring theme within government when you consider the wider plans to defund 80%+ of level 2 and below qualifications for adults. It might be the DfE sees some of this provision fitting more with the UK Shared Prosperity Fund rather than AEB, but this provision is critical and needs to fit in the landscape somewhere. You can’t have a ladder of opportunity with the first rungs removed. 

All in all, the funding and accountability consultation marks a golden opportunity to make the system work better. But I fear, without better appreciation for the role of all FE providers, it will be a missed one. 

By Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy, AELP

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