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The Long and Winding Road ESFA and DfE on the road to the move over and change

Steve Lawrence, MD of EEVT Ltd
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The Long and Winding Road? What inspired Paul McCartney to write The Long and Winding Road?

The phrase was inspired by the sight of a road “stretching up into the hills” in the remote Highlands surroundings of lochs and distant mountains.

He wrote the song at his farm in 1968, inspired by the growing tension among the Beatles. Also about change of styles of Music.

Well myself and many others have for years been saying the ESFA needs to change, and as an industry we sent out several messages.

We told them what you are doing and the way you are doing puts jobs at risk, and indeed now full circle the staff at the ESFA will they say be cut by some 54.3 per cent on the 1,749 staff.

Support and communicate yes, they have started to communicate but 40 odd pages about what they are going to do to bad employers and their EDIT about Employer that is demonstrating High-Risk Behaviour,  see here.

Listen to our needs and the Learners needs.

Ok Loans you need a full Grade 1 or 2 Ofsted well great but how many Inspections have taken place in the past 2 years. This year only 44 full inspections and 280 other monitoring visits including almost 230 new provider monitoring visits (NPMV) who were delivering apprenticeships. So sending out procurement with little chance of people taking up the opportunity not because they do not want to do it, but because they can’t. They have learners but not the funds but no Grades.

Often the ESFA and IFATE have been looking at the Big Employers and what they want, but forgetting about the 80% SME providers requirements when looking at Apprentices through Trailblazers.

I am sure you and I could quote six or seven other crazy thought process the ESFA have come up with over the past four years.

My concern is around two areas of the changes that will start from April 1st,  as this will indeed cut costs in general by around £89 million pounds with staff and office and IT costs form the ESFA budget requirements.

One: So will the cash if you like go back to the Treasury, when indeed it could go into more funds for Training?

Two: Will the old guard be affected and I will not name people but many at the Top have been there from when The LSC was established in April 2001, under the Learning and Skills Act 2000. It replaced the 72 training and enterprise councils and the Further Education Funding Council for England. In 2006 it had an annual budget of £10.4 billion.[1] It was described as Britain’s largest Quango.[2]  then on to the SFA right up to today, and the ESFA.

These people change jobs and titles and have very large wages and do very little to enhance the Training and Development landscape other than send out thoughts, ideas and sit on meetings where half of what is said is redacted.

Just like Paul McCartney and why he had to write The Long and Winding Road? The need for change or the end of that road. Would they ever get to that door, or not.

Well two thoughts were one Paul began writing ‘Long and Winding’ with Ray Charles in mind… (Paul was referring to the White Album sessions, which had been the previous low point for the band.) “It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach.” Musically, he wanted to do something in the Ray Charles style.

Then two it was about the break up of the Beatles which was on the horizon and indeed by the time this song hit the number One spot they the Beatles were not talking to one another.

What caused the Beatles to break up?  It was 1966 and after years of touring the world playing to packed out audiences and screaming fans, The Beatles needed a break.  An exhausted George, John and Ringo persuaded “workaholic” Paul that they should no longer perform live and that the band should take a much needed holiday.

You can read ten different sides to what happened and why it happened.

Just like why this is much needed in relation to the ESFA and why they have to be split up.  So let us look at the Key items from the changes in the report from Sir David Bell KCB DL.

  1. ESFA role stripped back to funding: The DfE agreed to a central review recommendation that ESFA continue to operate as an arm’s length body, but “refocus” on funding, including assurance and compliance – stripping back its other regulatory and policy roles. Bell wrote that the “sheer breadth of its current role risks distracting from its core funding delivery role and confuses customers”. He claimed the government lacks a “unified directing voice” over schools regionally. Regional schools commissioners currently oversee educational performance, while ESFA oversees financial management. This “sometimes creates points of friction internally and a lack of clarity externally”. Permanent secretary Susan Acland Hood said changes would “allow ESFA to continue to focus on making sure that public funds are properly spent”. The DfE also agreed to “work towards” giving ESFA full control of education funding, moving around £8 billion out of direct DfE hands. Departmental grant management “can be inconsistent”, and it agreed to start using ESFA’s management system. Further details of the implications for routine maintained school funding and many specific grants were not provided.
  2. Tighter DfE grip on academy oversight: Curbing ESFA’s role will mean its non-financial regulatory roles are brought in-house at the DfE. Oversight of academy governance, safeguarding, new trusts and schools, university technical college engagement, and networking events will move to the DfE’s regional teams. The DfE also agreed it should take “ownership” of the Academy Trust Handbook from ESFA, unless the handbook is stripped back to only financial matters. It comes less than a year after the handbook was widened beyond finance to cover safeguarding, estates and health and safety matters, in changes that sparked fears of a tighter Whitehall grip.   Meanwhile management of post-16 and skills policy, including T-levels, level 4 and 5 qualifications and apprenticeships, will similarly be consolidated within the DfE. Providers currently experience post-16 oversight as an “incoherent burden”. The changes fit into a wider revamp of the department’s structure, with its unusual eight regional schools commissioner areas to be redrawn to fit more typical administrative regions. It means a new London region and commissioner overseeing academies. Acland-Hood said reforms will ensure the department “thinks, acts and partners much better locally”.
  3. DfE to ‘consider’ single school complaints system: Currently, the DfE’s “school complaints unit” handles issues reported about maintained schools. Meanwhile ESFA’s “academies complaints and customer insight unit” handles them for academies.  The DfE accepted Bell’s recommendation that it should “consider” taking direct control of academy complaints, consolidating them maintained school complaints. The changes come less than a week after Sam Freedman, a former DfE adviser, called England’s dual system of maintained and academies “inefficient and confusing”, and academy regulation “incoherent”. His Institute for Government report backed full academisation, beginning with consolidating RSC, ESFA and some Ofsted powers.
  4. Staff numbers halved as officials move to DfE: Bell’s report estimates ESFA will be left with between 750 and 800 staff – down 54.3 per cent on the 1,749 staff it averaged throughout 2020-21.Bell linked his estimate to the agency being smaller “as colleagues working on post-16 skills and in other areas move into DfE”. He also says actual figures will be “subject to further work and the exact figure will need to be determined in implementation”. But elsewhere the report hints at potential job cuts. The DfE accepted his recommendation that the sizing of all directorate support teams – including those moving into the DfE – should be reviewed. ESFA’s support teams will now also “not include any designated HR roles”. Where corporate functions are moved in-house, the DfE should also “consider opportunities for efficiencies”, the report added. Bell himself acknowledged any review “can cause uncertainty and anxiety”, and said his team had tried to minimise this by engaging colleagues throughout.
  5. Governance overhaul at ESFA: The DfE accepted Bell’s call for several reforms to how ESFA itself is governed and overseen by the DfE. Currently ESFA is “often treated more as a part of the core department than as an executive agency”, Bell wrote.

He said its existing setup enabled flexibility, but risked undermining its independence and fragmenting oversight of its work. The DfE “has no direct mechanisms” to oversee ESFA in a formal way at present. Mike Green, the DfE’s chief operating officer, will now formally become ESFA’s senior sponsor. Creating a wider sponsorship team will provide a “comprehensive mechanism for overarching performance oversight, collaborative reprioritisation, and enabling collaborative working and learning”. The department also agreed to a review of ESFA’s internal governance. This should ensure both “robust and efficient oversight” and that its setup and future non-exec directors are “tailored” to its new role.

Let us hope and wish that they do this in a way that the people who do all the delivery and the organisations who take on the responsibility EG the Training and Development Industry are not harmed by this as often, just like when the Beatles split up the main loss was to the fans and the Music Industry.

Our Learners and Employers and indeed the Providers need to maintain the ability to train, with Funds, less red tape and indeed more opportunity for flexibility for learners and employers. 

As a finale point the amount of organisations funded for Government funded delivery is around 2,000 with some 1,700 plus ESFA staff without Ofsted staffing which I see at around 1,800 and some 2,300 Ofsted Inspectors contracted additionally to carry out inspections of schools and further education and skills provision means which comes to some 4,000 at Ofsted so in total 5,700 doing compliance and procurement.  This is without the DFE staffing levels at this time, which they do not appear to have up to date figures.  

Steve Lawrence RSA Dip MREC AIFL, Managing Director at EEVT Ltd

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