From education to employment

Going local – can we unlock the promises of devolution?

Sally Dicketts is group chief executive of Active Learning

The government’s productivity plan, published in July, set out a vision to extend the scope of localism in the further education sector.

Following pilots in the north of England, the plan proposed that more regional authorities would take on powers to shape their local skills agenda.

This could lead to more targeted basic skills provision together with professional and technical programmes tailored to local needs, it said.

Good further education colleges are powerhouses of economic development. By working with local authorities and employer bodies they are perfectly placed to bridge skills gaps and drive local economic growth.

In theory then, the more power that is handed to local bodies who understand the local skills and employment needs, the better.

My question is that in a time of austerity there is very little left to localise.

School and sixth form funding will not be devolved, which just leaves apprenticeship funding (already allocated to employers) and adult skills (already cut by nearly 30 per cent with few signs of long-term survival).

It is well documented that when times are tough, governments localise. My concern is that, with what little remains, will the localism deal come with a requirement to top-slice funds to central government? This could mean even less for local learners and less opportunity for employers to meet their emerging employment needs.

As announced last week, The Association of Colleges will be working with the University of Oxford to investigate the impact of these devolution proposals on the sector.

The research project, called ‘leadership in a world of change’ will explore how localism can be achieved against a backdrop of cuts to the FE sector.

Ayub Khan, Chief Executive of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, the body funding the research, commented that “the sector needs time and space to think about the changes required to strengthen its future”.
I just hope that it will be allowed this time and space when the pace of change is faster than ever before.

The roll out of area-based reviews is now underway, driven by an aim to achieve a sector comprising “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers”.

Our country certainly needs strong, resilient and efficient providers – but it also needs ones that can be locally responsive. If we are to achieve the promise of localism, we must ensure that colleges remain agile enough to deliver a local skills agenda that will combine to increase the country’s productivity. A small number of very large institutions may not be the answer.

Sally Dicketts is group chief executive of Active Learning, an education group that includes Banbury and Bicester College, City of Oxford College and Reading College

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