From education to employment

FE Funding is Changing – Are you Ready?

Malcolm Cooper, MCA Cooper Associates

The way FE provision is funded is about to undergo its biggest change in years.  Following the Skills and Post 16 Education Act 2022, which was passed in April this year, major changes are coming to the way DfE contracts and forms funding agreements with Further Education Providers.

The two-part Funding Agreement that we have all known for years with a generic Part One applying to all providers equally and a Part Two specifically detailing a provider’s specific funding will be replaced with a new agreement which will require a provider to create and, on an annual basis, maintain an Accountability Plan.

The purpose of this will be to show the actions needed to adapt the provider’s curriculum offer to meet changing skills needs. This plan must be able to demonstrate that the provider had taken into account a number of national, local and regional factors, including those arising from Curriculum Review as set out in the new Education Act. It also has to set out how they will work with local key partners, including other providers and employers.

All of this was expected to affect FE providers with effect from early in 2023, but this notion has been jolted by the announcement in October by Ofsted that the new tighter curriculum review and accountability requirements will operate with effect from September 2022! This means, in theory, any provider inspected, with immediate effect, may expect scrutiny of its curriculum portfolio and its curriculum plans to figure in their inspection and a judgement on how well providers meet skills needs will feature as a sub-judgement in the published inspection report, so there is no time to lose!

Ofsted has already extended its approach to inspection, adding pre-visit days for inspectors to evaluate relevant skills needs and their application in the provider under inspection, and by inviting providers to produce information regarding curriculum alignment and to appoint a nominee to represent skills and curriculum design during the inspection process.

Last Spring, the DfE ran a pilot with a number of providers, predominantly colleges, in anticipation of this change, so if you are with one of these providers you are certainly well set. However, for the rest  it may be less of a certainty.

 Chris Payne, Associate Director of MCA, was Deputy Chief Executive at NCG and led on their involvement in the pilot.

“The challenges for providers will be much more wide-ranging than curriculum, affecting any areas of the provider’s operations that may be seen to hinder its ability to meet skills needs,” said Chris. “The added burden of updating the Accountability Plan each year will also prove to be problematic in some situations. There is no doubt that curriculum review is at the heart of these new plans but other areas such as finance and accommodation could figure if they are considered to be a constraint to meeting a provider’s skills needs”.

The main responsibility for all of this falls squarely on governors. For years they have had two clear statutory duties, independent of any involvement by management; namely, ensuring the solvency of their organisation and being responsible for the nature of its curriculum. Governing Bodies now, for the first time have a third statutory duty.

The DfE will now hold the provider’s strategic leadership accountable for the content of their curriculum and its alignment with national, regional and local skills needs. There is a quite clear specification that providers must undertake periodic Curriculum Review to fulfil this new duty to inform the Accountability Plan and provide information to Ofsted.

In order, for governing bodies to adequately discharge their new statutory obligation in future they must ensure that appropriate reporting protocols are in place to ensure that regular curriculum reviews happen as they should, that reports to them are forthcoming and the reviews are published on the provider’s website.

I am sure if I were to challenge most senior curriculum managers on this subject, they would seek to reassure me that it is all under control, they have been doing this for years. But is it? Can they be sure that their interpretation of what is required will pass muster? Have they included a wider review of potential constraints or is their review limited to curriculum issues. How has it been tested? You certainly would not want its first test to be during an Osted visit!

However, if I were to ask an equivalent group of governors about their provider’s readiness for these changes and how they expect to deal with their new statutory duty, how many would be confident, indeed how many would actually know?

Time will tell!

By Malcolm Cooper, Managing Director, MCA Cooper Associates

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