While devolution of the adult skills budget will lead to better use of public funds, an overall strategy to guide spending is sorely lacking, says Sue Pember.

Much to the surprise of many, in his autumn statement the chancellor said that the government remains committed to devolving powers to help local areas address productivity barriers.

He also announced that London would join the other major cities and be given (subject to readiness conditions) devolved access to the adult education budget from 2019. It will also be allowed to explore further devolution of powers over the coming months.

I hope this signals a genuine green light and that rapid progress will be made to get everything ready for 2018 (for London from 2019). If we are doing it, then can we please just get on and do it? The uncertainty makes it difficult to plan and is stopping investment and innovation in adult education.

Devolution will change the way local decisions are made and how skills provision is funded. It should bring new life to adult learning by providing greater freedoms and flexibilities. At local level it should result in more effective, better targeted provision, as well as greater growth, stronger collaborations, and perhaps even partnerships between employers, communities, education leaders and students.

However, because of uncertainties about the scope of the deals, the size of the AEB allocations, who the learner beneficiaries should be and how new priorities will work with national entitlements and commissioning, it is hard to plan, or
predict the benefits.

Can we please just get on and do it?

For the devolution agenda to be successful, it has to be managed alongside the wider post-19 education change programme, including the Sainsbury Review, changes to vocational courses, the new FE student loans system, apprenticeship reform and the levy. The list goes on…

It is hard to see how all these changes are being overseen – does anyone have a crystal ball so we can peer into 2020?

Although I believe that decisions about individual need should be made locally and will lead to better use of public funds, there is a policy vacuum at the top and no overall strategy to direct the future use of the adult education budget.

For many, it is piecemeal, with the risk that the country will not be covered adequately by 2018. As it stands, currently around half the population and half the AEB will be covered by devolution, so the SFA will need to run a dual system for the rest of the country.

I do wonder whether there would have been such a push to devolve if we had known back in 2007 that the budget for devolution would not be the £3 billion we had then, but would only be half that amount and that it would not include apprenticeships.

We have well-documented productivity and wellbeing issues, and part of the solution lies in adult education and skills development. However the nation’s financial situation is tight and future demand for adult learning will be greater than the funding available. The combined authorities will therefore have to make some difficult decisions and may end up as the fall guys, when decision-making moves from the government to the deal areas.

Most of those who will be expected to deliver on these changes over the next two years have yet to be touched by change. Is everyone ready to deliver? Are the combined authorities which are delivering on their deals adequately resourced to manage a new planning and funding system? Are providers ready to build relationships with the new commissioner?

Lastly, who is doing local assessment of future need? I don’t mean revisiting the old type of manpower planning models – we are entering a new world in which we all need good English, maths and digital skills, where we may have to work into our 70s, and will probably need to retrain several times in our lives. We need to improve wellbeing by ensuring there are programmes designed to improve integration. The need for more education and skills development for adults will continue to grow. We need to put in place innovative local solutions and embrace devolution to make it work.

Sue Pember is HOLEX director of policy and external relations

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