The Association of Colleges has called for an end to competition in the FE market and for government to force collaboration between all providers which funding is conditional on.

The membership body has today published a report that claims competition has had a negative effect on choice, quality and the delivery of specialist courses and that “excessive” provision can “destabilise and fragment the post-16 education system at area level”.

Under a series of proposals put forward for greater coordination through a “place-based managed market”, the AoC calls for a “single post-16 commissioning and regulatory process” which applies to “all providers”, including school sixth-forms and independent training providers, to “promote efficiency, sufficiency, quality and equality and ends siloed regulation”.

The association also says a structure is needed which allows “strong, anchor institutions”, such as “successful colleges” to “lead provision and their area”.

There should be “clear conditions for funding, market entry and continued market presence based on strong local co-ordination”, it adds.

And under a new “rules-based framework”, the DfE should “require providers to engage with area coordination, with a duty to establish network strategies” and that there should be targets for “minimum and average class sizes for all providers”.

Ofsted should then inspect against this framework “to ensure that public resources are being deployed efficiently and responsibly”.

The report, titled ‘The impact of competition in post-16 education & training’, builds on the recommendations from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future report for England which last month called for new legislation to force all colleges to be part of “networks” where funding and accountability ultimately lies.

It comes ahead of the imminent FE white paper.

AoC chief executive David Hughes claimed that the recommendations put forward today would not mean a loss of autonomy for colleges, but that it should be colleges who lead on area co-ordination because they are “the major providers in an area and they can be given the responsibility to engage others, including employers, ITPs, schools, universities”.

Explaining the approach further to FE Week, Hughes said: “It is not going to be sitting around a table and deciding, for example, sixth form A delivers A-level maths, while sixth form B delivers BTECs in performing arts. That is not what we’re proposing, we are coming at it from the other end of saying what you want in an area is to look at what is needed broadly and to think about the curriculum offer spread and the levels to broadly meet the needs of the population and where there are gaps or problems you might do something.

“We’re not saying that somebody will be told they’re not allowed to deliver a qualification.”

Reacting to today’s AoC report, Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director Jane Hickie said: “AELP is reluctant to comment again so soon after the commission’s report. But we honestly find the report’s references to it being about 16 to 19 provision and the references to markets confusing when forced collaboration between all types of providers across all post-16 provision appears to be the prescribed solution.  What is a ‘managed market’ really in this case other than an exercise in control by a lead college?  

“If the AoC is right to point the finger at the government for being at fault for being the market purchaser, then surely the answer is to make the individual learner the purchaser with the individual exercising choice via learning accounts over properly accredited courses supplied by government approved providers of whatever type. What is there to fear from individual choice?”     

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our priority is making sure people across the country gain the skills we know employers value and that will help our economy recover as we build back better from coronavirus.

“Our ambitious FE White Paper will set out plans to build on and strengthen the excellent work that is already happening, so we can unlock even more potential and level up skills and opportunities across the county. More will be announced in due course.”

Here are the AoC’s policy recommendations in full:

Area co-ordination of provision to support sufficiency, efficiency, quality and equality:

  • A single post-16 commissioning and regulatory process which applies to all providers and promotes efficiency, sufficiency, quality and equality and ends siloed regulation.
  • Clear conditions for funding, market entry and continued market presence based on strong local co-ordination.
  • A co-ordination process designed to protect successful specialist or ‘minority’ provision using a rules-based framework.
  • Cohort growth seen as an opportunity to promote efficiency and sufficiency with a temporary moratorium on 16 to 19 market entry.
  • Clear conditions for continued market presence based on the current size requirement for new sixth forms.
  • Where more provision is needed, commissioners to be required to formally agree that any new provider should meet these conditions without destabilising or fragmenting existing local provision in a way which jeopardises efficiency, sufficiency, quality or equality and has appropriately qualified staff, equipment and resources to do so in a viable fashion at both course and cohort level.


Investing in anchor institutions as hubs for specialist or ‘minority’ provision

  • Providers which have the track record and capacity to deliver specialist or ‘minority’ programmes successfully and efficiently to have ‘first call’ on investment.
  • Successful colleges are anchor institutions in their local economies but require significant capital investment to remain so, starting with a £240m capital injection followed by recurrent, formula driven building and equipment budgets.
  • A challenge fund to be put in place to support start-up costs for new areas that are highly specialised.


A rules-based framework

The Department for Education (DfE) should:

  • develop a rules-based framework to include:

o target minimum and average class sizes for all providers.

o subject level viability models based on cohort size.

o ringfencing of 16-19 funding for 16-19 learners.

  • require providers to engage with area coordination, with a duty to establish network strategies.
  • use its powers to review and consolidate the most inefficient providers.
  • undertake a back-to-basics review of the post-16 funding formula to determine if block, cohort or student funding drive the behaviours which optimise efficiency, quality and sufficiency.
  • define sparsity as a new element in the post-16 funding formula for areas that are extremely rural.

Ofsted should:
• inspect against such a framework to ensure that public resources are being deployed efficiently and responsibly.