Efforts by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to cut red tape succeeded in reducing up to £300m of costs by around 2 per cent. Christine Lewis assesses the situation from the point of view of the sector admin staff she represents.

The Simplification Plan was but the latest iteration in a line of attempts to reduce the levels of bureaucracy that bedevil the FE and skills sector.

The Bureaucracy Review Group annual report a decade ago highlighted cause for hope as government and its inspectorates agreed to diminish the red tape burdens that were outlined.

Changes agreed by Ofsted, Adult Learning Inspectorate, Learning and Skills Council and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) promised a 25 per cent cut in scrutiny processes and workload. A new information management culture was to develop based on trust and measuring performance by accessing real time data used by providers to manage their own business.

QCA was to seek agreement on a common data set that all awarding bodies would supply; information collected at the same time and accessible to other agencies.

It was also to rationalise scrutiny requirements placed on providers leading to a 30 per cent reduction of demand imposed by awarding bodies. Crystal clarity was to be renegotiated on the roles of central government and its agencies with the education department focused on strategic leadership and LSC on managerial implementation.

A radical overhaul of engagement with employers, quality, funding systems and efficiency as well as data was to be mindful of reducing bureaucracy as a success criterion.

For those of us who are veteran stakeholders on FE advisory groups, the Simplification Plan was a Groundhog Day event. The quango bonfire did little to reduce the administrative burden on colleges and staff.

For those of us who are veteran stakeholders on FE advisory groups, the Simplification Plan was a Groundhog Day event

The National Audit Office (NAO) in 2011 reported on the costs of complying with funding, qualifications and assurance requirements, suggesting a figure of between £250m and £300m. Subsequently, the Public Accounts Committee also expressed concern at the unnecessary burden created by funding, qualification and assurance arrangements.

The NAO refers to agencies that informed the plan and notes that providers had little voice in developing it. This is also the case for the nearly 19,000 administrative and central services staff, who would have no difficulty in describing why the inexorable tide of red tape that comes with new initiatives and requirements, stretches their working hours to the full.

The number of teachers has reduced by more than 3,000 since 2010 and learning support by more than 2,000. We can rest assured that providers would not be adding to their admin staff unless it was imperative.

The FE Commissioner may be able to make a gung-ho statement about the need to cut support staff to balance the books, but that will not diminish the demands for their services in college. If providers responded by reducing this section of their workforce the teaching and learner support function would need to assume all manner of compliance-necessary duties.

The NAO notes that the government cannot estimate the true costs of complying with the assurance regimen, but shows that some of streamlining has saved £4m — which is not a King’s ransom in terms of the £7bn estimated cost and is unlikely to impact on staff workloads.

It concludes that the BIS and the Department for Education have not done enough to work together, which touches on the thorny problem of why the two-thirds of 16 to 18-year-olds in colleges, theoretically under the wing of the DFE, are educated in a sector run by BIS and its agencies.

The third of that age group who remain in school do so under a protected budget with no reductions in staffing or feet off the quality pedal.

But there are worrying signs revealed by Unison’s administrative and management staff in academies who report significant increase in workload post-transfer.

The various incarnations of bureaucratic entities and their demands that have straddled the FE sector display a real lack of trust in providers and staff, have no democratic foundation and waste money that would be better spent on learners.