The Skills Funding Agency clawback saga appears to have ended with around 100 of the 600 providers warned they might have to pay back funding actually having to do so. Andy Gannon considers what happened and also whether there’s a bigger picture to look at.

The news last week that just 15 per cent of providers will be subject to a funding clawback from the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) will, sadly, not surprise anyone who has worked in FE for any amount of time.

We have become rather used to our attention being drawn to data systems and funding ‘errors’, even though our natural instinct is to be more concerned with things like teaching and employer engagement.

It is striking that, while the overall number of those ultimately affected is small, nearly 700 providers received the first, rather ill-timed, communication from the SFA before Christmas. Even if only the chief executive of each one was caused a sleepless night or two, that still amounts to quite a lot of professional energy expended.

But the reality, of course, is that, in each of those 700 providers, there will have been a small team of people beavering anxiously away on data throughout the month of January in order to arrive at the conclusion, in many cases, that the clawback amount in total would be less than £500.

In lighter moments, you could be forgiven for thinking that we had just lived through an episode of Yes Minister. The story has it all – ‘bumbling bureaucrats’ pursuing palpably intricate processes which, to anyone in the outside world would seem, at best, unrelated to the business of education and, at worst, downright distracting.

while the FE and skills system has operated in a more and more ‘market-driven’ way over the past two decades, the nature of centralised control has become more and more demanding

There was even the delightful element of timing — cue scenes of hard-pressed provider data managers eating turkey and mince pies while hunched over a computer screen examining ILR fields while the Minister and Sir Humphrey enjoy a luxurious Christmas banquet without a care in the world.

But this is not Yes Minister. Rather, it is the state we find ourselves in because of one ultimate policy contradiction. That contradiction is best summed up as the rather perverse notion that increased freedom breeds increased control.

There is no small irony in the fact that, while the FE and skills system has operated in a more and more ‘market-driven’ way over the past two decades, the nature of centralised control has become more and more demanding.

At the highest level, this is explained away as the need for ‘rigorous accountability’ if professionals are to be allowed to spend public money as they see fit.

However, the real issues go deeper than this — and reveal a fundamental political mistrust of people ‘on the ground’ to manage the very things that they should be best placed to manage themselves.

Just as, with schools, central control extends over the curriculum and the money rather than the system as a whole and making sure that every child can access a good education, so in FE, we have an overly-bureaucratic approach to funding, rather than a consolidated national view on, say, employer engagement and careers advice.

It is very reassuring to hear SFA officials acknowledge the need to simplify and make more predictable their processes — and I have no doubt there is a genuine regret about the way in which this episode has been handled.

But simplification has a habit of making things more complex, and ignores the fact that the processes themselves are often a distraction.

To add insult to injury, the clawback announcements, such as they were, came on the same day as the news that 24 per cent was to be cut from sector budgets in the coming year.

While huge effort has been focused on the microcosmic data detail, a cataclysmic shift will rock the big picture. What was Nero doing while Rome burned?