For colleges, FE providers and all those involved in the ever-changing local skills system, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) can be seen as everything from bewildering, complex, risky, threatening, to opportunities for influence. But, says Tom Stannard, the sector must be active in seizing these opportunities.

LEPs are different beasts from their predecessors, the Regional Development Agencies.  But they will be powerful players in local skills systems over the years ahead.

At the recent NIACE seminar on the 2013 spending review we recognised positive news delivered for the sector — expanded apprenticeships, protected adult and community learning funding, traineeships and more — and the clever politics that enabled this.  But we also signalled caution.  The prognosis for considerably less publicly funded adult learning provision by the end of 2017, and potentially beyond, now appears a given.  The lack of system-wide remodelling on skills, and the consequences of this for learners’ choice and navigation, is a challenge and an opportunity LEPs can now seek to address.

It is this individual perspective on the learner that provides the most powerful opportunity for the FE system to engage with the new landscape LEPs now oversee.  In its continuing national squeeze on “non-participation spending”, the spending review forecasts fewer financial incentives in the interests of “more expensive” learners with, for example, higher childcare costs or significant learning disabilities.  Advanced learning loans are still likely to be extended in the future.  And the pilot “skills funding scheme” for three LEPs in England will seek to further adapt these incentives.

Colleges, providers, local authorities and LEPs have a shared interest in securing labour market participation by adults of all ages.  Emerging best practice across many LEP areas marks an encouraging start.  This powerful coalition can ensure adults with learning needs that may be “more expensive” in the short term are not disenfranchised in seeking such participation.  This is one of many challenges local skills strategies, overseen by LEPs, now need to tackle.  Despite the limited nature of the £2bn single pot for LEPs delivered by the Chancellor in the spending review, LEPs will aim to craft the much needed skills system architecture, enabling a stronger connection between local growth and skills strategies, with colleges and providers central to that debate.

The sector needs to be an active player in that debate.  LEPs may be strange creatures with unusual and artificial boundaries.  They are regarded with scepticism by some local authorities, variously critical of LEPs’ democratic deficit, or the recent allocation of former district council New Homes Bonus money directly to LEPs under the single pot.  SMEs and large corporates wonder variously what LEPs can achieve alone.  Councils, colleges, and employers, who have historically worked together extremely well, have a wariness of this new landscape in common.

Back in 2011, we argued in our Colleges in their Communities Inquiry for the “new generation of entrepreneurial college leaders, working closely with local employers, within a new community curriculum”.  This remains key to ensuring colleges’ and providers’ shared interest in adaptable, local provision remains a feature of the skills systems LEPs are now designing.  This needs to enable all ages participation, linked to systematic understandings of local labour markets and local employer demand.

NIACE is already working with partners at national and local level including Councils, LEPs, colleges and providers to develop this agenda.  We will be continuing to support these partners in developing a coherent approach to remodelling local skills systems across the country over the coming months, with a focus on partnerships for learners rather than individual institutions, and we welcome the discussions colleges and providers are having with us to enhance and spread national best practice.

This work recognises the new institutional significance of LEPs and our growing partnership with them individually, as Core Cities and through the national LEP Network.  But more importantly it will recognise the overriding importance of colleges and providers remaining at the heart of their local communities, and the huge opportunity that connecting this system with local economic growth strategies represents for that most important constituency of all – adult learners themselves.

Tom Stannard is director of communications and public affairs at NIACE