Audit office investigates BIS efforts to simplify FE and skills

Efforts to simplify FE funding and bureaucracy by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) are under the National Audit Office (NAO) microscope.

The NAO has launched a probe, called Further Education and skills sector — the simplification plan, with findings due for publication this autumn.

“The study will examine the work done by BIS to simplify the way in which the FE and skills sector is funded and overseen, while maintaining an effective assurance regime,” a spokesperson for the NAO told FE Week.

“It will follow up on a number of the issues raised by the [House of Commons] Public Accounts Committee [ PAC] in its March 2012 report on reducing bureaucracy in FE in England.”

The 2012 report from the PAC raised concern there was “no clear accountability” for reducing bureaucracy in FE with the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and Education Funding Agency (EFA) “separately accountable” for funding.

It added neither BIS nor the Department for Education (DfE) had taken “ultimate responsibility” for co-ordinating efforts to cut bureaucracy across the sector and suggested BIS should take the lead.

The PAC also raised concerns that there was insufficient appreciation among the government departments and funding agencies of the cost and inconvenience to providers caused by having to deal with different bodies for pre 16-year-olds, 16 to 18-year-olds, 19+ and prison education.

The NAO raised similar concerns about a lack of co-ordination between government departments and funding agencies in its report on reducing bureaucracy in FE just four months earlier.

And in February this year it produced a report that warned the EFA was in danger of becoming “overloaded” as financial constraints, staffing difficulties and an increased workload took hold.

The NAO spokesperson added it would also look at the impact of additional issues that had arisen over the last two years — which it is thought could include the problems at the EFA, apprenticeship reform and the transfer of skills capital funding from the SFA to local enterprise partnerships from April next year.

It is understood that a number of colleges and independent learning providers (ILPs), representative bodies including the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and BIS and the DfE have already been consulted.

Julian Gravatt, AoC assistant chief executive, said: “It is good that the NAO is following up their earlier study on reducing bureaucracy in FE. In the years since the first report, progress has been made by government and funding agencies in some areas, including removing unnecessary regulations and rewriting their own rulebooks.

“But there’s a risk that current reform plans for apprenticeships and qualifications make matters more complicated and unstable again.”

Stewart Segal, AELP chief executive, said: “We welcome the NAO study because we firmly believe that further reductions in bureaucracy for providers would result in them being able to deliver more sustainable employment outcomes for young people and adults.

“We have members who deliver programmes for DfE, BIS and DWP and more coherent procurement across those departments is needed together with more consistent contract management and sharing of evidence.

“Programmes must be delivered by those providers with a proven ability, with a level playing field for all providers. Performance and contract management systems are different for colleges and ILPs, but based on common principles.

“As well as less bureaucratic, the contract performance process must be more open with clear and consistent priorities.  We will continue to lobby for a more transparent and open intervention policy for independent training providers.”

A spokesperson for the 157 Group said: “We believe that the government should examine much more closely the disconnect between policy intent and policy implementation.

“Funding and accountability changes which have been intended to create more freedom have, over the past few years, invariably ended up with colleges feeling more, rather than less, constrained.”

A joint statement from the funding authorities, BIS and DfE said: “The findings of the report will be reviewed when it is published in the autumn.”

Visit www.nao.org.uk/contact-us/contact-us to contribute, directing emails to NAO director Peter Gray and audit manager Phil Hyde. BIS declined to comment before the NAO findings were published.