No accountability for issues in FE, say MPs

There are too many funding organisations in further education of which none take responsibility for cutting red tape, according to a report by MPs.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee also said that they are “frustrated” the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), does not believe it should be their job to reduce bureaucracy.

According to the report, the failure of both of these points “leads to a poor value and uncoordinated approach, particularly in the case of data requirements”.

The comments come following a report by the committee, published today, on reducing bureaucracy in the sector.

In compiling the report, the committee took evidence from BIS, as well as the Young People’s Learning Alliance (YPLA) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “There are too many funding organizations in further education, none of whom accepts ultimate responsibility for cutting the bureaucracy that colleges have to deal with.

“We were frustrated that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which leads on policy for further education and which you would expect to accept overall responsibility, does not believe it should do that job.

“This lack of clear accountability is at the root of many of the issues we highlight in this report.

“For instance, differences between funding bodies in the information they demand create an unnecessary burden on training providers and divert money away from students.”

A statement from BIS say they take their responsibility to reduce bureaucracy “very seriously” and have made significant progress in simplifying systems, removing unnecessary intermediary bodies and removing central targets.

“Colleges, providers and sector representatives are involved in our work and have welcomed the headway we have made,” a BIS spokesperson said.

“We will continue to work with our partners the Skills Funding Agency, Young People’s Learning Agency and others to drive this down even further but we must also ensure public money is properly protected and learners receive a quality service.”

To provide value for money, the committee’s report says, the systems need to be “appropriate, efficient, avoid unnecessary duplication, and balance the protections they provide for public money with the costs of the bureaucracy” they impose.

However, while the report has recognised the attempts being made to reduce the burden of bureaucracy, it criticised the two departmental programmes for not running them together.

Mrs Hodge added: “This is not to say that there are no initiatives to simplify the requirements placed on FE providers.

“Both the Department and the Department for Education have launched separate such initiatives.

“But they are not managed together as a single programme with a clear and consistent goal against which progress can be measured.

“Indeed, the Department considers that such measurement is not even necessary.”

While BIS has required the Agency reduce its administrative costs by 33 per cent, neither they nor the Agency has a “rational view” on the amount by which they would like to reduce bureaucracy in providers.

The SFA disagree, however, that a target for bureaucracy reduction would be helpful or good value for money.

A statement from the SFA says: “Our focus is instead on sector freedom and flexibility to deliver local and sectoral skills priorities.

“This policy inevitably has led to significant removal of now unnecessary process and we will continue to work with the sector to further these aims.”

The report also says that current attempts to quantify the burden on colleges will not provide a complete enough picture and BIS and the Agency do not accept that measurement of progress is necessary.

Meanwhile, the SFA and the YPLA are confident the changes they intend to make in simplifying their funding systems will not put public money at greater risk.

But BIS and the Agencies, according to the report, need to demonstrate, in devolving control and simplifying procedures, their safeguards over the proper use of public money have not been weakened.

Mrs Hodge added: “Finally, moves by the Agencies to simplify funding systems and make them outcome-based must not be allowed to weaken safeguards over the proper use of public money.”