John Gray, Director of Further Education, Emsi

According to recent reports, Skills Advisory Panels (SAPs) may be given a role in influencing and even deciding which courses will be prioritised and funded in their area, under a new Further Education Bill being considered by the Government.

Whilst this is something that is sure to alarm many colleges, we want to suggest four ways in which colleges can make sure they are prepared for this outcome, and also how they can be working with and influencing their local SAP now.

As a quick reminder, the purpose of SAPs was spelled out in a speech in December 2018 by the then Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, where along with announcing a £75,000 fund for each panel to analyse their local skills needs, he stated the following:

“We need a strategy that means both the individuals choosing their courses and the colleges putting the courses on are incentivised to develop skills that match the labour market needs of the future… We need a plan to better ensure supply matches demand; a plan to make sure people are going to be able to find productive, remunerative jobs at the end of their courses.”

More recently, the current Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced an additional £75,000, so that:

"...each SAP can go further in identifying local skills gaps, take action to address them as well as providing evidence to support the Skills and Productivity Board when it is established later this year.”

Four ways colleges can prepare

1. Careful Curriculum Alignment

The first thing to note is that the purpose of SAPs – to ensure that skills supply is better matched to the needs of local employers – is basically no different than what Ofsted have been constantly reminding the sector about for the last few years, notably in a recent speech by Amanda Spielman, where she called for “a clearer focus on matching skills to opportunities.”

This is therefore something which colleges have been grappling with for some time, and so for colleges that have already taken real steps to align their curriculum better to local demand, the idea that SAPs are looking carefully at curriculum alignment should not be especially alarming.

2. Work Alongside SAPs Now

Secondly, regardless of any changes in the proposed FE Bill, colleges need to be working alongside SAPs now, as well as other local stakeholders, in order to ensure that they are all “speaking the same language”.

If it turns out that SAPs do get the increased powers that have been mooted, then those colleges who already have the ear of their local panel are likely to find that they are in a much better position to influence direction than those who haven’t.

3. Align Provision With Employer Demand

Thirdly, in order to ensure they are on the same page as their local SAP, colleges need to be drawing on localised Labour Market Insight (LMI) in order to show their understanding of the needs of local employers, plus the steps they are taking to meet that demand in terms of course provision.

A good example of this can be seen in one of our partner LEPs – Cheshire & Warrington – where they are working with all five colleges in the region using the same basic data to align provision with employer demand.

4. Unpick the Details

Finally, colleges should bear in mind that in many instances SAPs will be dealing with overall skills priorities, rather than necessarily getting deep into the detail. This is again where good, granular LMI is essential, since those colleges that have it can use it to unpick the detail beneath those priorities, demonstrating a knowledge and understanding of the specific jobs and specific skills that employers in their area are in need of, and even challenging the SAP where it is felt they have it wrong.

In summary, the best response that any college can have to the potential increased involvement of their local SAP in their skills provision is simply this:

Understand your local economy and the needs of its employers better, so that you are in a position to partner with them, influence them and challenge them where necessary.

John Gray, Director of Further Education, Emsi

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