Extra freedoms for FE 'limited', claims 157 Group report

Delivery of extra freedoms for the FE sector has been “limited” despite being central to government policy for years, a report commissioned by the 157 Group has said.

The consortium of colleges worked with law firm Eversheds LLP on the report, which is a result of interviews with sector leaders including Business Secretary Vince Cable on the subject of freedom and flexibility.

According to the report, entitled Freedom and flexibility: colleges and skills in 2015, the survey results show the “limitations of what has so far been offered and the real potential for future policy development”, and that a “real difference” could be made in terms of implementation of policies, not by new policies themselves.

The 18-page report calls for widening of colleges’ statutory powers and also calls on government to heed a warning that initiatives like sponsoring academies carry “significant risks” for colleges as well as benefits.

It also calls for a more “sensible” framing of employer engagement, with the “encouragement of strategic partnerships and mutual respect”, and goes on to say that “neither employers nor providers have all the answers to our future skills needs”.

It says the apprenticeship funding debate should be re-visited, with a “more realistic outlook”, to establish how to maintain employer choice without “disincentivising their increasing participation”, and says the government may wish to consider asking the Competition and Markets Authority to clarify what steps the law would allow providers to take to collaborate further with businesses.

Dr Lynne Sedgmore

Dr Lynne Sedgmore

Dr Lynne Sedgmore CBE (pictured), executive director of the 157 Group, said: “Freedom and flexibility have been two of the buzzwords of the last five years and, in this publication, we aim to provide an overview of what that has meant – for institutions, for communities and, most importantly, for employers and students.”

The report goes on to call for a drive towards “more strategic relationships” between the FE sector and employers after the election, and that the services of the Education and Training Foundation should be “developed, strengthened and supported” beyond May 7.

Other suggestions include one that proposals for a Royal College of Teaching should include the FE sector and that a clear focus on learners should be reflected in policy, with learners encouraged to help govern FE institutions and more support with travel and subsistence costs.

Sarah Robinson OBE, chair of the 157 Group and chief executive of Stoke on Trent College, described the report as a “high-level commentary on the skills landscape in April 2015”, adding: “In particular, we build upon the principles articulated in our manifesto for FE and skills:  that future policy should be guided, wherever possible, by stable structures, equal treatment, the freedom to innovate and durable funding.

“Our analysis, published today, indicates that while our skills system is undoubtedly more ‘free’ than it was five years ago, there is still a long way to go in matching the reality of policy with the rhetoric of politicians.”