The Secretary of State @GavinWilliamson calls the long awaited #SkillsforJobs white paper a "blueprint" for the future of further education.
Rather than being revolutionary with lots of new announcements, it certainly does consolidate and position many reforms already in transit.
A big question mark now hangs over the future devolution of skills provision to the mayoral combined authorities.
The M9 mayors have been chomping at the bit for control of more funding and for now, Whitehall has gone lukewarm on that prospect, with little more than a token reference in the white paper. Even before this, we saw that the DfE had been very specific that the new Level 3 adult offer, was to be 'administered' and not devolved by the MCAs.
This change in direction will be a frustration for many ITPs as all the MCAs recognised the valuable role that ITPs have in the adult education space and all ended up procuring a larger slice of the AEB then the ESFA.
Despite this frustration, the government's latest move is to pilot local skills improvement plans and work more closely with business representative organisations such as the Chambers of Commerce and putting employers at the heart of the FE Reform is a positive outcome for ITPs.
Look no further than the outcome of the apprenticeship reforms and the shift to a more employer-centric approach, not to mention how ITPs have always mastered the art of effective engagement with employers and developing solutions to meet their needs.
ITPs are not just about apprenticeships
The fact that ITPs even got their section in the white paper shows what a long way we have come over the years. ITPs deliver most apprenticeship provision and have done so for many years.
However, it is equally important to recognise that ITPs are far from a one-trick pony, also delivering the majority of Traineeship and ESF provision. They deliver valuable adult provision (although artificially capped and constrained by the current funding system) as well as study programme provision to the most disengaged and disadvantaged young people.
The lack of meaningful reference to level 2 and below in the document is a real disappointment considering the government's focus on levelling up and the wider social mobility agenda.
It was equally bizarre that DfE decided to drop its concerns about subcontracting into the ITP section and the most suitable way of describing the government's general rhetoric on subcontracting is schizophrenic with the direction of travel on the practice now being unclear.
Teeth at last for the Baker Clause
The government deserves a pat on the back for adding some much-needed bite to the Baker Clause for non-compliance on careers advice in schools.
AELP had previously said that non-compliance should be a limited Ofsted grade, so this is a positive and important step to ensure better advice and guidance to our young people which they deserve.
Sensible on apprenticeships
The fact that the multi-year comprehensive spending review was switched to a further interim one-year deal will have no doubt meant that long-term decisions on future funding have been deferred to a later point, such as ensuring a sustainable longer-term funding solution for apprenticeships. It was good to see that the government recognised the lack of appetite from both employers and providers for the white paper’s reforms to step significantly into the apprenticeship space. Within apprenticeships, we have already seen fine-tuning announced last year regarding the move to a single regulator for quality of provision and the move to a "strengthened and simplified" approach to external quality assurance of end point assessment.
The government says it wants to continue to drive up the quality of apprenticeships and one of the ways it intends to do that is through a refresh of the RoATP from April. Considering that the previous full refresh was to raise the bar and better test capacity and capability, this implies the previous process was not as robust as the ESFA had us believe. While we wouldn't disagree with safeguarding funds and ensuring a quality provider base, we hope the ESFA takes a pragmatic view through a phased implementation so to not overburden providers during the pandemic.
Finally, one area ripe for change is how the ESFA manages performance and the white paper has announced plans to introduce a new approach for provider accountability, using a wider set of measures. QAR is another area where AELP has said that the ESFA needed to rethink their approach to managing provider performance – originally developed for frameworks, but which don't fit with standards. The devil will be in the detail, but we look forward to engaging with the ESFA on this.
Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)