Local enterprise partnerships seemed to be the next big thing for FE and skills in late 2012 when Lord Heseltine called for a single funding pot that included the adult skills budget.
Fears emerged that a lack of FE and skills representation among Lep boards might see sector cash used elsewhere, on infrastructure projects, for instance.
But with Chancellor George Osborne having announced his own take on Lord Heseltine’s proposals, with a smaller amount of sector cash up for grabs,
FE Week reporter Paul Offord looks at whether fears should remain about who fights the FE and skill corner at Leps.
There were raised eyebrows when Tory grandee Lord Heseltine called for control of the entire skills budget to be passed from the Skills Funding Agency to local enterprise partnerships (Leps).
The former deputy prime minister’s report of late 2012, No stone unturned in pursuit of growth, suggested that £17bn of skills cash over four years from 2015 should go directly to Leps.
The concern was that skills cash, without the protection of ring-fencing could go, for instance, towards infrastructure projects instead.
The only protection for the skills agenda, it seemed, was a strong sector proponent on the Lep board, but an Ofsted survey and report in March last year warned: “FE remains under-represented at the highest strategic level on Lep boards.”
It added: “The majority of Leps were not sufficiently well informed about learning and skills provision in their area.”
But when Chancellor George Osborne said he would be implementing Lord Heseltine’s idea, what emerged was an annual Single Local Growth Fund of just £2bn.
Handing over the entire skills budget had been rejected in Mr Osborne’s 2015/16 spending review, although included in the new fund would be almost all cash available to FE providers for capital spending projects (around £330m a-year).
It will mean, for example, that colleges will have to apply to their Lep, instead of the agency, for money to build most new training facilities.
The agency confirmed it would still distribute a “small” additional capital spending budget to providers — but declined to comment on how much money would be involved.
Meanwhile, control over the spending of £5.3bn up to 2020 from the European Union structural and investment funds will also be handed over to Leps.
The funding has to be spent on business, transport, environmental, or education and training projects that help drive regional development and FE providers can apply for a share.
So, while the Leps project isn’t on the scale imagined by Lord Heseltine, they will nevertheless have control over FE and skills pursestrings.
With that in mind, research carried out by FE Week has shown that many Lep boards have little or no representation from the sector.
Just 28 (5 per cent) of the 611 members of all Lep boards were currently involved with FE, while another 10 (2 per cent) had past experience of the sector.
It compares to 54 board members with present or past higher education experience and 14 with current or previous links to primary and secondary schools.
And we found that 14 Lep governing boards had no FE representation at all.
The findings follow a call by Oftsed (in its 2012/13 annual report on FE and skills) for “more support” to be shown to FE by Leps.
Dr Ann Limb OBE, chair of the South East Midlands Lep, was principal of Milton Keynes College from 1986 to 1996 and Cambridge Regional College from 1996 to 2001, before moving to the charitable and private sector.
She said: “It is definitely a very good idea to have FE fully engaged with Leps. There are a number of ways they can do this — and one of those is through participating in board meetings.
“Another way of improving FE influence on Leps can be through some kind of skills and employment committee, which we and many other Leps already have.
“We have representatives on ours from all nine FE colleges in our area and one sixth form college. They all work well together through the committee which helps with strategic planning.
“They all did a brilliant job of drawing up our skills plan for the next three to five years and the main Lep board approved it.”
Dr Limb explained the committee elects one of its members to represent it on the board.
She said: “It happens to be someone from higher education at the moment [vice chancellor of the University of Northampton Nick Petford] but it could just as easily be someone from FE.
“There might be some scope for reserving a place [on the main LEP board] for someone from FE, as well as someone from higher education, but there is the danger of the board becoming too big and meetings too long and inefficient — which board members from the private sector in particular would not approve of.”
Skills Minister Matthew Hancock had also said in December 2012 that Leps would be given “sign-off” on granting colleges and training providers Chartered Status.
But the quality mark has still not been introduced and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said there were now no plans to ask Leps to approve applications.
A BIS spokesperson further confirmed it was encouraging all Leps to have college representatives on their boards.
But he added the final decision on board membership would remain with individual Leps and minimum quotas would not be introduced.
He said: “The government gave Leps a new role setting local skills strategies. To that end, each Lep will be encouraged to have a seat on FE colleges’ governing bodies with colleges also represented on Lep boards.
“Leps are business-led partnerships whose activities are driven by local economic circumstances and priorities. They themselves are best placed to identify the most appropriate representatives to sit on their boards.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said he had seen a “good appetite” from Leps across the country for “supporting” the sector.
But, he said: “The lack of FE representation on Lep boards in some areas is of concern.
“However, strong partnerships between FE colleges, local authorities and local employers predate Leps in many areas of the country and will continue to be the foundation of strong local learning and skills strategies.
“What’s important is focusing on strengthening these partnerships given Leps’ new responsibilities for learning and skills.”
Christine Doubleday, deputy executive director of the 157 Group, said: “We are, of course, concerned about the lack of interplay between Leps and FE.
“Leps have, on their doorstep, a public asset which offers them access to thousands of employer relationships and to the future talent of this country.
“An alliance between Lep chairs, FE corporation chairs and principals would be a mighty powerful force to be reckoned with.”
Lindsay McCurdy, from Apprenticeships4England, thought there should be a minimum of one FE representative on each Lep board.
She said: “FE has to be represented on them all — it’s no good someone from higher education trying to represent us. These Leps are going to be so influential on our sector and it’s important they understand how we work.”
A spokesperson for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers said: “FE and skills representation on the boards would obviously be desirable, but we know that providers are getting engaged at committee level and we would encourage more to do so.”
But business leaders were reluctant say whether or not there should be more FE representation on Lep boards.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Federation of Small Businesses, and Forum of Private Businesses (FPB) all declined to comment on the issue.
The next few weeks will be vital if LEPs are to strike growth deals with government that empowers colleges and other providers to play a full and imaginative part in driving local economic growth.
It’s clear that the skills and employment plans for growth, submitted by Leps before Christmas, are a mixed bag.
Several of them would have benefitted from more expert guidance from FE representatives at Lep board level — as well as at skills and employment task group level.
Where things work well, colleges have been prepared to think collectively and imaginatively about supporting the plans.
For example, London colleges and Association of Colleges London region have agreed the secondment of a college director to work with the London Lep on its growth deal.
But where there has been poor engagement, the plans submitted are likely to lack rationale or supporting evidence and be confused about funding, programmes and what, if any, flexibility is required.
If we get this right, there will be opportunities to make a huge difference, but the challenges are big and the timescales short.
Leps often have laudable ambitions for skills — some plans will for example incentivise local careers guidance partnerships and FE/higher education collaboration, which opens routes for young people with local employers into higher skills roles in key industrial sectors.
But Leps need FE and skills expertise in order to draw up properly evidenced, realistic and imaginative plans.
It’s not easy when a university vice chancellor is asked to represent higher education, FE, skills and apprenticeships on a Lep board — or when representatives from local authority economic development teams struggle towards a skills and employment plan without expert engagement from colleges and providers.
Those Leps who already get it should secure skills deals that bring benefit. Let’s see quick action elsewhere to inject FE and skills expertise to achieve deals that can stick.
Teresa Frith, senior skills policy manager, Association of Colleges
The 39 Leps are currently immersed in the process of producing and getting their strategic economic plans signed off by central government.
From what I have seen skills and employability are central to every plan.
If the upturn in the economy is to be cemented, then gaps in skill provision will need to be filled and training providers will have to find effective ways of working with business.
Leps will be absolutely central to this process, acting as an intermediary.
The question is how should FE best play into the regeneration of local economies?
Is it by trying to get a seat on the Lep board, or by showing their capability to engage, work and deliver for business and for local people? I would say the answer is the latter.
I recently met with senior staff at Burton and South Derbyshire College and was hugely impressed with their clear focus on understanding what business needed from them.
From that they continue to deliver the programmes that really benefit the community. Interestingly the conversation was not about structures, but about delivery.
The frustration that a number of the Leps feel over the current system of delivery is evident from the economic strategies.
They make the point that companies are prepared for training as long as it is the right training
The problem is that in too many cases the right training is not available or business does not know how to access it. If they cannot find it they will turn to other forms of provision, which will be increasingly through e-learning platforms.
So colleges that can gain labour market intelligence and work with employers to develop the courses they need will be well placed to prove themselves as an essential component of local economic growth.
I would argue that this is best done through a strong relationship on the ground with employers, and not by thinking that this can be achieved through simply being on the board of a Lep.
David Frost, chair, Lep Network