New Boris adviser would 'take a flamethrower' to adult education policy

Professor Alison Wolf is now working three days a week advising Number 10 on FE policy ahead of the Budget next month. In October she critised “target-led policy”, called for the introduction of adult education “lifetime allowances” and said the Department for Education should step aside because “you have to put far more of the power and decision-making in the hands of the individual”. FE Week’s editor, Nick Linford, looks at what it could mean for the adult education policy and the DfE if Wolf wins the argument.

Little did we know that when Baroness Alison Wolf gave evidence to the education select committee last October she would be appointed to advise the prime minister from within the Number 10 policy unit.

As FE Week reported last week, Wolf is on a sabbatical from Kings College London and is now working for the PM three days per week in the run up to the budget next month.

Perhaps the move should not have really come as a surprise given the help the government urgently needs to reform the apprenticeship levy, implement T-levels and invest in adult skills post-Brexit.

And Wolf is an obvious pick given she was appointed by Michael Gove in 2011 to undertake an independent review of vocational of education from which most recommendations were implemented. Then in 2015 she joined a group of select few on the Sainsbury Review that introduced the T-level plan and again, there she was on the panel writing the Augar Review in FE and HE funding last year.

“I hope I am going to be able to make a pitch for lifetime allowances”

Looking back at what she said when MPs asked how she would improve adult education policy, it seems obvious she has already played an important part in the manifesto that promised £1.8 billion for college capital.

She said in the month before the manifesto was published that “the main problem is that we have completely destroyed any sort of easy infrastructure of proper institutions in all towns where you can go to evening classes briefly, where you can go for a while, come out and go back. That used to exist in every town in this country. The ghosts of it are there, but it needs to be revived”, something exposed in our feature this week. 

“A vast amount of the money does not actually go on frontline provision to learners”

And when the Conservatives published the manifesto with a commitment to £600 million per year for a National Skills Fund, it was accompanied with a press release that said this would be the “first steps” towards a “Right to Retrain”.

Could this policy be what Wolf meant when she told MPs “adult citizens should have a right to a certain amount of education” and made “a pitch for lifetime allowances”?

She said: “You have to put far more of the power and decision -making in the hands of the individual and that you get better skills for the economy not by asking a government department to organise courses for people that they are sent on but by giving them far greater ability to learn skills when they think they want to.”

And when it comes to adult education, colleges need both the money and the freedoms according to Wolf: “I think you have to make the colleges a very central part of this. They have also been tremendously weakened and one of the things we said in our [Augar] review was that the government had to stop doing this and had to put money back in.”

She saved her strongest criticism for the government machine: “The simplest thing you could do would be to basically take a flamethrower to the way the whole adult and further education budget has all these pots.”

This will have been sweet music to the ears of Dominic Cummings, chief policy adviser to Boris Johnson and former adviser to Michael Gove when he was education secretary.

It is well known that Cummings has regular run-ins with civil servants and recently said he wanted to find advisers that are “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.

Wolf also said an “obsession with targets, outcomes and making people do things in a way where you can tick things off, has been very harmful”.

“You have to put far more of the power and decision-making in the hands of the individual” and “I think you have to make the colleges a very central part of this”

“One of the problems with this target-led policy that we have had for a long time is that you find, yes, if you get a degree you earn more, if you get anything at what we call level 3, or skilled crafts, you definitely earn more, and if you get a good apprenticeship you definitely, definitely earn more, but just shelling out for lots of little courses does not automatically translate into productivity.”

So, with Wolf at Number 10 and the secretary of state, Gavin  Williamson returned to the DfE after the reshuffle and eager to develop policies to spend the manifesto pledges, civil servants at the Department for Education could be in for a shock.

“I think, alas, devolution does not help. It simply adds another layer of bureaucracy and arguing about who gets what”

Devolution

Wolf was in no doubt that the devolution of the Adult Education Budget has been a mistake.

Lucy Powell MP asked: “What other things do you think might help us to both increase the spending and spend it better?What about devolution and some of those issues?”

Wolf replied: “I think, alas, devolution does not help. I wish it did, but judging by what is happening in London it simply adds another layer of bureaucracy and arguing about who gets what.

“The simplest thing you could do would be to basically take a flamethrower to the way the whole adult and further education budget has all these pots. I do not know as much about the local authorities, so I will stick to the adult education budget going to the colleges. If you could get rid of all these silly little divisions and special programmes, and just hand them the money – and also allow them, as happens in other countries, to have a certain amount of carryover between years – I think overnight you would increase by 30 per cent the amount of money that went straight through to the classroom.”

National Retraining Service

Wolf made it clear she was not a fan of the little known National Retraining Scheme that already has its own department within the DfE.

Ian Mearns MP asked: “How effective do you think it will be in terms of helping adults to upskill or retrain—are we ready to go?”

Wolf replied: “You kind of know what I am going to say: do we need another specialised pot? It is one of these ideas where you think, how could you be against it— how could you be against giving adults help with retraining? Of course, you should not be.

“The trouble with having something that is specialised and specific and that goes through employers is that it is going to be another pot. It is going to have its own regulations. It will work fine if you have a large employer with a trade union that can see what is coming along the road. However, I cannot see how it can actually enable the population as a whole to access the flexible opportunities it needs.”

Online learning

Civil servants at the Department for Education have over many years been looking for ways to increase the access as well as reduce the cost of adult learning, but with little success when it comes to government funded online learning.

It is thought that they are having another go, through very limited National Retraining Scheme pilots, but Wolf appeared not to be a fan of delivering education over the internet.

Ian Mearns MP pointed out that “every town has a university—it is called the Open University.” At which Wolf shot back: “That is true, but it has been pulling back from having bricks and is more and more virtual. I personally think that was a big mistake.”

Mearns then asked if there is “a particular problem with the National Retraining Scheme about an overemphasis of online learning” to which Wolf simply said “Yes”.

Tenders

Wolf seems to be strongly of the opinion that having colleges apply for lots of “little pots” of funding is “extraordinarily wasteful.”

The University of Edinburgh’s Professor Lyn Tett was on the panel and told MPs: “Another problem, especially at the community level, is that most people are sustained by applying for grants—they could be from the local authority, from the big lottery or whatever—so they spend an awful lot of their time getting money in so they can provide a service, instead of providing the service.”

Wolf added: “I agree, really. Partly it is the level of funding, and to a considerable degree it is the way the funding is sent out. It is divided into little pots that mean that it is, amazingly, true that you have fantastic FE colleges that struggle to spend the adult part of their grant. It is hugely wasteful because, again as Lyn has said, a vast amount of the money does not actually go on frontline provision to learners; it goes on the administration, the collection of data and the grant applications. It is extraordinarily wasteful.”