Are we really keen to see London, Manchester, Birmingham and the West Midlands with no powers over education and skills spending, asks Ewart Keep

What are we to make of the apparent outrage at the Greater London Authority spending an extra £40k on a consultant to support an AEB consultation exercise, and at Alison Wolf’s dismissal of AEB devolution?

There are two problems with these reactions. First, it is simply too soon to judge the overall effects and benefits of devolution: policy and practice are still in their early stages, and evolving.

Second, London has a larger population than many EU member states. It is a global city. As Michael Heseltine’s recent Empowering English Cities report demonstrates, elsewhere, comparable urban areas have control over many aspects of education and skills and maintain an administrative and governance structure to deliver this.

Are we really keen to see London, Manchester, Birmingham and the West Midlands with no powers over education and skills spending and all decisions made by the DfE and the ESFA?

If we are, what are the intrinsic benefits of this kind of centralised, national control and why do so few other countries adopt this model?

England is unique among larger (population-wise) developed countries in the degree to which education provision is centralised. In essence, there is central government, its market regulators, and individual providers.

Elsewhere, an intermediary layer of place-based local, regional or state/provincial governance institutions, often allied to some form of social partnership arrangement is the norm.

Either they are all wrong, and we are right, or we may be missing something.

This is linked to the debate about the relative merits of a coordinated system of provision versus market-based competition. We risk the diseconomies of having competitive marketplaces for 11-19 learning – where UTCs, studio schools, free schools, MATs and community and local authority schools (many of which have sixth-forms that are tiny and require cross-subsidy from 11-16 funding) duke it out with FE, apprenticeship providers and sometimes even universities.

There is institutional choice, there is competition, but it often comes at the price of narrowing the overall range of courses that can be provided for a given local per-student spend.

Systems can achieve economies of scale through coordinated “offers”. For instance, the decision to allow schools to offer T-levels may mean that in some subject areas student numbers will be too thinly spread to make it viable for anyone in a locality to offer some routes/pathways.

When it comes to adult learning, different logics apply. There are two strands of activity. One covers individuals learning for fun, or to move to better jobs.

This can be left to individual choice in a national marketplace, providing that prospective students can access independent, top-quality labour market information and information advice and guidance on courses and what they might lead to.

Sadly, we still have country miles to go to reach this position.

Local cooperation and coordination beats cut-throat competition

The other strand of activity is adult workforce upskilling and reskilling, workplace innovation and business improvement.

This is usually linked, in the rest of the UK and the developed world, to local economic development activity, and as the combined authorities (see Greater Manchester) are showing, these are in turn inextricably linked to local transport, infrastructure, regeneration and inclusive growth agendas.

This type of activity is remarkably hard to plan, design and deliver by central government alone, and with “levelling up” liable to be a central driver of policy, we can expect to see more rather than less emphasis upon this kind of joined-up policy package.

The response from colleges has been positive.

The rise of the West Midlands FE Skills & Productivity Group and the Greater Manchester Colleges Group represent useful attempts to construct a joined-up offer to the local combined authority.

Colleges have realised that speaking with a single voice can help ensure that what they have to say gets heard, and that local cooperation and coordination beats cut-throat competition.