Colleges and partnerships need each other to make sure that local accountability improves rather than undermines the emphasis on employment skills, says Lynne Sedgmore

The Autumn Statement promises that the government will “seek to increase the proportion of spending that is awarded through the single funding pot for transport, housing, skills and getting people back to work…” The intention of this, of course, is a more localised planning agenda; the danger is that not everyone may prioritise skills.

Colleges are the natural place to start if you want a localised skills strategy. They have extensive experience of working with local employers, and the facilities and expertise to translate employer needs into a responsive curriculum. Employment outcomes for learners have long occupied the thinking and actions of good FE professionals, and an enhanced education and employment partnership to define and respond to such need has to be the most effective way forward.

So the recommendation that colleges be represented on LEP boards and LEPs on college boards is welcome. Our own research in 2011 suggests that this representation was at best patchy, and recent evidence suggests that things have not really improved. It is a missed opportunity, perhaps, that the recommendation was not stronger.

The real issue, though, is less about representation and more about the profile, influence and impact that the skills agenda has in LEP discussions and strategies. Key to that must be that the partnerships understand how effective colleges are and that colleges are seen as genuine strategic partners, not just delivery arms.

Where colleges have a strong voice, some LEPs are already making an impact with an effective skills group communicating with and influencing the board. The government is right, though, to identify that LEPs themselves need development if they are to contribute effectively to the skills agenda.

Colleges have gone out of their way to establish and make these relationships work. New College Nottingham engaged its LEP as one of the first partners in its “big conversation” to tackle the city’s skills development needs; and it was the college’s model of strategic engagement that was followed when the city growth plan was developed. Bristol and Leeds City Colleges chair their respective LEP skills boards and have a strong influence in skills policy.

And Leeds City College, whose chair of governors chairs the Leeds LEP, recently won an “outstanding partner” award from the city council, partly in recognition of its engagement with the LEP and local employers.

As we are encouraged to have a greater involvement in the work of LEPs, it is worth remembering that not everyone sees them as the solution to the skills “problem”. Recent reports suggest that some business leaders are dissatisfied with the work of their LEP, and some SMEs, in particular, have reported that there is not enough focus on their needs. But the college sector can work with all stakeholders to form effective alliances, we are good at partnership.

Finally, LEPs need to develop their influencing skills so that they can help to shape the contributions of all the parties that contribute to the overall supply of skills, including higher education, schools and private employers. Talk of getting control of the adult skills budget misses the point, as funding from the SFA  is dwarfed by both private funds and the rest of the education system.

Actively involving and drawing on the significant expertise and resource of colleges will help LEPs to prepare for the greater challenge of influencing schools, universities and employers to ensure truly effective skills in their localities.

Lynne Sedgmore is
executive director of the 157 Group