There’s no point in principals squabbling over the crumbs of the AEB, writes Ewart Keep, who wants the sector to take devolution much more seriously

It has not taken long for some in FE to fall into the trap that central government set for localities when it decided to “devolve” the adult education budget (AEB). In an era of austerity and massive cuts, devolution always means passing the buck on hard choices and blame.

The current spat between some FE colleges and the Greater London Authority (GLA) over its decision to top-slice less than a per cent of its devolved AEB to pay for local administration illustrates this point, but also suggests that FE may not be thinking hard enough about the long-term potential of devolution.

I have to declare an interest – I was a member of the GLA’s task and finish group that supported the development of the now-published skills strategy for London.

That said, the intemperate language used by some of those quoted on this issue is striking (“raid”, “pen-pusher”, “self-indulgent local bureaucrats” and “shocking” – to quote just some of the comments in FE Week). The government has provided no funding for any devolved infrastructure, so the money to organise the devolved budgets has to come from somewhere, and a one-per-cent top-slice is not a lavish administrative overhead (look at apprenticeship sub-contracting for a contrast). Moreover, without local capacity, there can be no localised AEB.

More broadly, is it the case that we do not want any element of local control? Should all decisions and funding allocations to be made at national level?

There are very few other developed nations in which the lead “world city” (and indeed all other cities and localities) would not have a major role in planning and administering educational spending and their own more broadly defined skills agenda. In England we have become used to massive levels of centralisation, and if FE does not exactly love this arrangement, the sector is at least familiar with it. In part, perhaps it is a case of better the ESFA you know, than the combined authority (CA) you don’t.

What is missing in the current devolution debate is any acknowledgement that there are bigger prizes to be had than the remains of an AEB which the government has already massively reduced. The tide of centralisation has finally, arguably begun to turn, and the long-term prospects for more power and better decision-making within localities are becoming apparent. As the CBI recently argued in its report ‘In perfect harmony’, “local leadership within a stable national framework is the key”.

One opportunity is the space to develop new approaches and funding models. In the current national set-up, centralisation means standardisation and almost no room for bottom-up experimentation. Colleges are meant to be fleet-of-foot responders to market forces, not innovative thinkers. Devolution, and local agendas and ambitions that outstrip what the AEB will support, generates experimentation, not least with co-funding models of the type piloted by Unionlearn in the early 2000s.

More broadly, what is emerging in some of the CAs is a new policy agenda that seeks to integrate economic development, a local industrial strategy, business development and support, innovation, inclusive growth, fair work, improved pay and job quality, progression and skills. This joined-up model, utterly lacking at national level, offers opportunities for FE colleges to play to their natural strengths and lead the delivery. Colleges bring together vocational skills and second chance, social inclusion provision in a way that plays perfectly into local strategies that aim to boost inclusive growth. Their links to local communities and small firms could also be invaluable, not least in relation to building business improvement support services, where infrastructure is often almost wholly lacking at the moment.

Put bluntly, FE in the CAs faces some significant choices. It can expend time and energy fighting over crumbs and small slices of the local AEB cake, or it can contribute to a broader agenda that helps make the cake bigger.

Ewart Keep is Director of SKOPE at Oxford University