November is always a busy month for the FE world, not least because the sector’s AoC Annual Conference thrusts FE policy into the spotlight.

This year looks like being no different with the Chancellor’s Autumn Financial Statement, details on the education and skills component of the Growth Plan, an updated Skills Investment Strategy, a participation strategy for 16-24 year olds, a new form of Employer Investment Funding and a new Strategy around Innovation, along with some follow-up activity to the series of consultation papers issued over the summer, all likely to follow in quick succession over the next few weeks.

Not all of course will be announced at the sector’s annual gathering, the Chancellor’s Statement and accompanying Growth Plan have for instance been earmarked for the end of the month, but it’s a sign of how much activity is building up around the sector. Broadly this change can be seen in five areas.

First, changes to the skills system itself with a review of some agencies such as the SFA, a change in remit for others such as HEFCE and the UK Commission and a change in name and status for others such as the YPLA. Part of the drive here is to free up providers so that they can be more responsive to their customers rather than to Government Bodies.

FE is being primed for a key role in skilling the country for growth”

A similar approach is happening at sub-regional level with the development of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs,) Enterprise Zones, Business Coaching for Growth and, in some areas, the introduction of local mayors, all in varying degrees tasked with leading local development and regeneration where possible.

Second, changes to the provider system evident in the creation of new players such as UTCs, Technical Academies and sector-based Work Academies for younger learners and National Skills Academies and Skills Centres and a network of Technology and Innovation Centres for the adult and business market. The drive here seems to be to strengthen some of the delivery infrastructure around key industries, renewable energy and cell technology for instance under Technology and Innovation Centres, while providing competitive options for learners within mainstream provision.

Third, some changes to the funding system, taking place of course against a difficult set of financial constraints. Obvious issues here have been the reductions in capital budgets, the ending of the EMA system, the piloting of outcome incentive payments and the trialling of direct apprenticeship funding for some large employers.

Simplification of the funding system is now set for 2013/14 with equalisation of the 16-19 funding playing field due to follow the year after, but a pressing issue for many is the shift towards a fee loan system for higher level provision from 2013. The drive here appears to be sharper targeting of core funding, a focus on outputs and an increasing shift in the burden of funding from the state to the consumer for higher level provision.

Fourth, some changes to learning programmes with new design principles being introduced for all 16-19 learning programmes, continuing emphasis elsewhere on basic skills and Level 2 provision, a big push on qualifications that align with labour market needs and growing demand for employability and training programmes. Policy debate continues about the case for a Tech Bacc, about the nature of apprenticeship provision and about ways of enhancing employer provision but the big drive here, as with much of the education world is the quality of what’s on offer and the emphasis on teaching standards.

Fifth, some changes to performance management with a reduction in blanket measures such as uniform annual self-assessments and other audit reporting and a shift towards institutionally derived measures with external referencing in areas like progression and destination analysis along with ‘customer’ responsiveness.

At the same time, Ofsted is conducting its own consultation on inspection arrangements for the FE sector while an independent review looks into professional membership arrangements. The drive here therefore is a reduction in centralised performance measurement and reporting in favour of a system that is more targeted and increasingly institutionally driven.

In summary, FE is being primed for a key role in skilling the country for growth; more Dick Whittington than Cinderella.