New legislation will enable the education secretary to intervene where colleges refuse to deliver courses decided through local skills improvement plans, the FE white paper’s architect has confirmed.
But the extent of the powers is still being determined by ministers and there is currently no timeline for when the formal regulations will come into force.
Keith Smith, the director for post-16 strategy at the Department for Education, clarified the intent behind the legislation put forward in the white paper during an FE Week webcast on Tuesday.
Central to the reforms are new local skills improvement plans, which will be “led” by employers and “shape technical skills provision so that it meets local labour market skills needs”.
As part of this, “new accountability structures to underpin” the plans will be introduced, including legislation “to put the employer leadership on a statutory footing”.
“New powers” that allow the education secretary to intervene “where local providers are consistently unable to deliver the skills priorities for that area” will also be introduced.
There has been confusion about what this new power would mean in practice since the white paper was published in January, and whether it meant that the DfE’s intervention regime would in the future include college failure to comply with the local skills plans.
Smith confirmed this was the case during this week’s webcast.
“This will be for ministers to set out, which they haven’t yet done, but the intent will be to have a bit of the FE Bill about how we get employers involved in shaping the system. The other part will be about what do the secretary of state’s powers look like where the system is perhaps not working effectively as he or she would like,” he said.
FE Week editor Nick Linford, who chaired the webcast, pressed Smith to be clear that this legislation would give the education secretary more power to intervene where a college or training provider isn’t delivering the courses as laid out in the skills plan.
Smith confirmed there will be a “shift in the ability for the secretary of state to intervene where he or she doesn’t feel that the system is effective”.
“The legislative agenda is a really critical part of the strategy, but I should just caveat all this to say government has not yet laid its formal regulations in the House of Commons and so this is very much for ministers to determine to what extent what sort of articles they want to lay within the Bill,” he added.
College autonomy in deciding what courses they run has been a hot topic in recent years.
At the Association of Colleges conference in 2018, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman controversially argued that some colleges choose to run courses for financial gain, such as in performing arts, despite the lack of opportunity for progression.
This, she said, is giving students “false hope” by putting them on courses where there are slim job prospects. Spielman repeated this concern in the watchdog’s 2020 annual report last January.
There have since been a number of reports from the likes of the AoC and former adviser to the skills minister and founder of the think tank EDSK Tom Richmond that suggest colleges should lose some autonomy.
And in November, Education and Skills Funding Agency director Matthew Atkinson told MPs he would “definitely like more power” to intervene in the running of colleges.
The local skills improvement plans mooted in the white paper are set to be piloted this year.