The promise to free up FE colleges from central control has the potential to unleash the kind of innovation and flexibility which this country needs if we want to capitalise on the opportunities of a new economy. There is a significant consensus around the need to move away from the central targets and funding levers that have created an inflexible, top-down system.
Government must ensure that the 21st Century learning and skills sector is more responsive – to both market and learners’ needs – and focus on achieving genuine flexibility across Further Education.
In an era of financial stringency however, these new freedoms will need to be underpinned by expert and evidence-based support packages, as colleges grapple with new models of collaboration, mergers and the need to achieve ‘more for less’. A strong focus on leadership and management training, on merger support and on innovative use of technology will be essential to successfully navigate the developing landscape.
To really encourage ‘funding to follow the learner’ as the Coalition’s programme for government pledges, we believe that carefully-designed learning accounts will truly enable the system to become more genuinely demand-led, an argument powerfully made in our recent think tank report ‘Shifting power to learners’.
Apprenticeships offer a great opportunity for implementing a demand led approach. LSN is currently working on some very interesting proposals that will support a radical shift – so we will be watching this space very closely.
Cull of the quangos
With the much anticipated ‘bonfire of the quangos’ beginning to catch fire, attention now turns to what arrangements, if any, will be necessary to replace them. In July 2009 David Cameron set out three criteria to justify a continuing role for an arms length agency.
Is political impartiality required? The Research Councils were given as an example. Is there a requirement for specialist technical advice? Here Cameron referred to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. The third test referred to cases where data transparency is required. Examples quoted included the Office for National Statistics and the proposals for the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.
Many bearers of familiar acronyms in our neck of the woods might claim they had a case, but in the current climate the need to save money seems likely to trump even the most compelling of arguments. They may find they have few friends as those closer to the front line breathe a sigh of relief that the axe, at least for the time being, has fallen elsewhere. Wild celebrations, however may be premature.
There is no real saving if the costs of a quango is simply transferred back into the civil service, out into the private sector or doled out as tasks for providers to take on from themselves. There is a risk that as the system readjusts, real and opportunity costs will mount and the projected savings will melt away.
Without significant reform and simplication of the complex edifice of systems and controls which these quangos represent, any long term financial benefits could be difficult to realise in practice.
The new Government’s commitment to widening the scope of the academies programme to give high-performing schools the ‘right’ to become academies, combined with the introduction of the Swedish-style ‘free schools’ creates the prospect of a large number of new providers entering the marketplace. These will range from parents groups at one end of the spectrum, through small clusters of academies grouped around a single sponsor, to charitable trusts, to large private-sector providers running academies in significant numbers.
In these straightened times, all providers will need to ensure that they are able to offer excellent teaching and learning outcomes supported by leading-edge technology solutions. This combined with robust back-office systems and processes will ensure that school leaders can concentrate on achieving the best outcomes for pupils.
LSN as a not-for-profit charitable trust welcomes any opportunity that enhances the life chances of young people. Through our 25 years experience in education and our unique experience gained as the only private sector provider to run an FE College, we have developed a package of support for new, and existing, academy providers to help them run efficient and highly effective schools from the outset. We wait with interest to see who the new providers will be.
John Stone is chief executive of LSN, the not-for-profit enterprise with over 25 years experience providing expert consultation to the UK education and skills sector