The chance for local people to have more of a say in adult education looks like a non-starter, says Lawrence Barton

The planned devolution of the adult education budget (AEB) heralds a significant advancement of adult education services, but early signs of inertia and mismanagement before the August 1 handover date signals an early death for this key initiative.

Our adult education system is failing to meet the demands we place upon it. With or without Brexit, our globalised economy means the UK needs talented and highly skilled workers. Instead, we are languishing in the doldrums through a combination of factors: an over-reliance on public-sector employment; a nationwide skills shortage, falling participation rates in training and levels of literacy and numeracy that could be much improved.

The UK’s skills needs are like a patchwork quilt, with no two regions the same. Our existing funding system isn’t adequately addressing these varied requirements, which is where devolution can help. It is about giving local people a greater voice by narrowing the gap between decision-makers, training providers and employers.

By transferring power to the regions, responsibility for decision-making will be put in the hands of those best placed to address local needs. It creates a structure based around local planning, coordination and demand. At least that’s the theory.

The problem is that this devolution is being mismanaged and delayed. Initially intended for 2018, the 2017 snap general election delayed the necessary legislation, which postponed transition by a year.

Regional infighting has also hampered progress. Devolution to some areas of the country, including East Anglia, the northeast and Lincolnshire has been shelved while local issues are resolved. The Sheffield City Region deal, meanwhile, after initially being disrupted by legal action, has only just been resolved after being hampered by local disagreements.

We’re on course for more of the same

Rather than seizing devolution as an opportunity to tackle problems with the existing system, the devolution framework retains inherent flaws. A bias in favour of FE colleges over private training providers remains, despite evidence from the Skills Funding Agency’s own research that shows employers are more satisfied with private training providers.

Devolution will see responsibility for roughly £700 million – about half of the overall AEB – transferred to six combined authorities, which are made up of two or more local authorities, and the Greater London Authority. Due to a diktat by central government about £450 million of that pot is allocated to FE colleges, representing 8 per cent or so of their total income.

This effective ring-fencing of funding for FE colleges represents a missed opportunity to free up the education budget, foster competition and drive up standards for the betterment of learners, employers and the economy. It also undermines efforts to address the issues of financial mismanagement prevalent within the college sector.

The recent example of North Hertfordshire College, which recorded a £5 million deficit in 2017-18 and received a recent £2.5 million government bailout is just the latest example of what the National Audit Office described in 2015 as the “rapidly declining financial health” of the FE college sector. For devolution to be a success it needs to bring with it a meritocratic approach to funding, prioritising those with a proven track-record of delivery and learner outcomes.

Shifting responsibility away from central government to regional officials more in tune with local needs can only be a good thing, but for this initiative to be a success the transition must be carried out effectively and opportunities to tackle existing problems inherent with the current funding system addressed. As things stand, we’re on course for more of the same.