If ministers did the necessary background research, failed initiatives like the National Colleges would be less likely to be repeated, writes Tom Richmond

Albert Einstein famously asserted that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. 

When the policy memory of many government departments – particularly on education matters – seems about as long as the average ministerial tenure, there is inevitably a risk that the same mistakes could repeat themselves.  

Step forward National Colleges. 

Launched to much fanfare in 2016 with £80 million behind them (not to be sniffed at in the age of austerity), the five National Colleges were set up to ensure that the UK had enough skilled workers in several industries crucial to economic growth.  

The plan was for the Colleges to focus on training at levels 4 to 6 (degree level) to plug the gaps in our skills system. 

When they were launched, who would disagree with the concept of a National College for High-Speed Rail to support HS2, or a National College for Nuclear to support Hinkley Point?  

Throw in National Colleges for Onshore Oil and Gas, Digital Skills and the Creative and Cultural Industries, and you have a policy that appeared to be in exactly the right place at the right time.  

Five years later, and we learnt this month that the National College for HS2 has officially come off the rails after being closed by ministers when facing insolvency.  

That’s after the College took millions in government funding and even blew £73,000 on a legal challenge over its ‘inadequate’ Ofsted grade, which it eventually abandoned. 

Rather than being scrapped, it has been converted into part of the University of Birmingham.  

Despite this dramatic rescue, it is just yet another dismal episode in the National College saga. 

In 2019 it was revealed the National College for the Creative Industries would be dissolved, despite being set up with £5.5 million and getting bailouts to keep it afloat. 

Then this month FE Week revealed the National College for Onshore Oil and Gas is being wound up without ever having properly opened. 

Seasoned observers may have raised an eyebrow when National Colleges first emerged, not least because it had only been a few years since “National Skills Academies” (NSAs) were unveiled ̶ accompanied by their very own fanfare, naturally.  

These Academies, like National Colleges, were supposed to be employed-led centres of excellence that would improve the quality and quantity of vocational training by responding to skills needs in particular sectors. 

They were first established in 2006 and subsequently rolled out in industries such as nuclear, and creative and cultural skills (detecting a trend yet?). 

Although the idea for NSAs originated in a New Labour government white paper in 2005, the coalition government kept the ball rolling in the early 2010s with new NSAs in “green skills” and health.  

The policy rationale was always dubious

Even so, the top-down nature of this initiative coupled with a strong whiff of ministers “picking winners” meant that the policy rationale was always dubious.  

The quiet relegation of NSAs in the mid-2010s coupled with the appearance of National Colleges was a subtle switch that was never fully explained or justified. 

Spending public money on shiny new buildings for some of the National Colleges and NSAs also raised questions about whether improving existing facilities and colleges would have been a more sensible bet. 

It would be wrong to say that National Colleges and National Skills Academies were identical in every respect. Nevertheless, the circular nature of such policymaking does not bode well.  

Ministers come and go, as do senior civil servants, with the latter often showing even less interest in policy history than the former.  

If the necessary background research had been done before National Colleges were devised, considerable resources and ministerial blushes would almost certainly have been spared. 

The latest wheeze comes in the form of “Institutes of Technology” (IoTs), which are yet another attempt to impose a top-down institutional solution on the skills landscape.  

That is not to say these Institutes are doomed to fail, nor that the investment isn’t welcome (it certainly is). Nevertheless, one wonders whether we will look back in a few years from now on IoTs and ask why nobody pointed out at the time that we were about to make the same mistakes all over again.  

Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the IoTs and the remaining National Colleges, all we know for certain is that Einstein would not have enjoyed a career in skills policy.