James Whybrow, Associate Director at RSM

Effective from today (1 Sept), the recently published College Oversight: Support and Intervention Guidance July 2021 highlights the updated techniques and approaches by which the ESFA and FE Commissioner are planning to support the sector.

At face value, for those that need them, these should be supportive to the sector and are to be encouraged.

The earlier discussions take place to ensure that learners, staff, and communities are not disadvantaged the better, and whilst many of the tools in the toolbox contained within the guidance have been around for a while, the shift in emphasis to a more ‘supportive’ approach can only be a good thing.

Whilst not new, the increase in collaboration with immediate peers and sector specialists with proven track records is encouraging and builds upon some of the successes from other initiatives.

Shifting focus

A lot of the focus understandably is on helping colleges recover from difficult situations, with reports highlighting cause, impact, and recovery progress. Additionally though, celebrating success and good practice more widely will support the broader development of the sector, providing insight for governing bodies and leadership teams to pause and consider their own performance and evaluate whether they are on the right path, or simply continuing along the path of least resistance.

It is great that more data is becoming available publicly via national achievement rates, funding allocations, inspection outcomes, Performance Dashboards and the increased benchmarking through the College financial accounts reporting. Perhaps though, if these were expanded further through showcasing such as staffing structures, curriculum planning hours, student/teacher ratios etc, the additional benchmarking possible would be a real support to the sector.

Whilst this may be anecdotal, or only gained through experience, you would have thought good practice metrics and key performance indicators would already be underpinning the analyses undertaken by the ESFA and FE Commissioner prior to formal intervention. A few companies currently offer such services commercially, but with so much investment being made to support and help lead a recovery, could even greater investment be made to find out why colleges are successful in the first place and support remedying underlying causes as opposed to responding to the effect?

Apprenticeship accountability framework

The release of the Apprenticeship training provider accountability framework earlier last month, is a positive development as well. It will provide a platform that for many will increase the profile and visibility of apprenticeship provision.

Many often compare apprenticeship provision directly to class based full time provision, using terms such as enrolment numbers or achievement rates, but apprenticeships are funded and operate differently and are highly influenced by many factors often outside of the college’s control with multiple customers and stakeholders.

Most would acknowledge the main funding source for colleges comes in the form of recurrent grants or funding allocations, which in turn generates the largest volumes of students. I am not saying it is easy to attract, recruit and retain students, but I would suggest that recurrent grant college based programmes such as 16–18-year-olds study programmes are better understood than others that have greater unpredictability, such as apprenticeships.

I would suggest that prior to 2020, few colleges experience significant swings year on year in volumes of 16–18 year-olds. However, as the country and economy recovers from the pandemic and Brexit, it is likely that more 16 to 18 years olds will look to stay in education as opposed to employment or apprenticeships. This will create further pressures on the funding for colleges unless additional funding is made available to support the increased demand.

Whilst there is some competition for 16–18 year-olds, the number of providers competing in the apprenticeship marketplace is significantly higher, with over 2,100 providers currently recorded on the RoATP. Are marketing and business development resources correctly aligned and focused in the right areas? If 90 per cent of budgets are spent on attracting students that would come anyway, could colleges get better impact investing elsewhere in more responsive programmes, such as apprenticeships or full cost programmes?

Unlike the recurrent grant funded programmes where income is more predictable and with measures that are more understood, apprenticeship provision is full of unpredictability and responsiveness. This framework provides a fantastic opportunity to showcase and raise awareness of apprenticeship provision.

Final thoughts

It is critical that all providers consider the metrics referred to in the guidance and framework above and ensure that monitoring arrangements are in place for these, and the wider elements associated with apprenticeships.

In addition to the apprenticeship framework, we recommend colleges review and consider how effective business processes are to manage risk and in particular consider:

  • the accuracy and timeliness of funding returns;
  • the business planning process for apprenticeships;
  • the financial monitoring framework including approach to course costings;
  • performance management information available and how this is used; and
  • resource allocation and deployment

James Whybrow, Associate Director at RSM

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