Sharp criticism of ‘limited flexibility’ in the Innovation Code

Government measures to help colleges respond to local employment and skills needs have lost the “spirit” of the report that called for their introduction, it has been claimed.

The Innovation Code, available for use from April this year, was a key element of recommendations that emerged from the Colleges in their Communities Inquiry last year.

It was chaired by Lady Sharp, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson in the House of Lords.

She described the code as “a funding formula that, subject to proper audit procedures, would allow up to 25 per cent of the adult skills budget to be used to meet local priorities”.
However, Lady Sharp has spoken of her “disappointment” at the way the code has been interpreted by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

“We should have read the small print more carefully . . . what is being proposed, which has now been further developed in the guidance recently issued by the SFA, provides only limited flexibility,” she said in a Lords grand committee debate this month.

The SFA has said it plans to issue fresh guidance on the code.

But frustration over its use in practice is shared at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and Association of Colleges (AoC), whose director of education policy, Joy Mercer said: “We endorse Lady Sharp’s comments.

“The purpose of her report was to support colleges in responding to the specific requirements of communities — for example, in meeting the needs of tenants’ associations.

We should have read the small print more carefully . . . what is being proposed, which has now been further developed in the guidance recently issued by the SFA, provides only limited flexibility,”

“Its implementation as an instrument to help colleges develop qualifications with employers runs against this grain. There is such a plethora of qualifications already available that it is rare not to find one that can be of use.
“That is why take-up has been slow. We would urge BIS and the SFA to return to the original spirit of the Sharp report.”

She added: “We have flagged this as an issue with SFA and are seeking to discuss how the code might be re-balanced in its promotion to ensure Lady Sharp’s vision can be better recognised — as much as is possible within SFA’s remit.”

NIACE director of policy and impact Mark Ravenhall, said: “The code as written in the final report was much more expansive and inclusive than what has been developed since.

“Our challenge to colleges and to government was to create a system where providers were more accountable to local communities than to government, and had the flexibility to meet community needs.

“The way the code has been developed doesn’t quite achieve that, but it’s still early days.”

The SFA and BIS issued a joint statement on the code. “The development of innovative provision is in the hands of the sector,” it said. “There is no process of approval; it is for FE professionals, working with employers to design and develop the provision that will become the qualifications of tomorrow.

“In the coming weeks, as planned, the agency will issue updated information on how the use of the code can be maximised, which will help share best practice across the sector.”