AoC calls for new skills body and awarding powers for colleges

The AoC's proposal appears to echo Labour’s pledge to set up Skills England, a “taskforce” which would ensure accountability for skills spending

The AoC's proposal appears to echo Labour’s pledge to set up Skills England, a “taskforce” which would ensure accountability for skills spending

A new national body should be set up to help deliver a more “coherent” post-16 education system, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has said.

The call for a “social partnership body” comes in a new report that builds on the AoC’s call for a single tertiary education system for post-16 students, which would also see colleges accrediting their own apprenticeship assessments and higher-level qualifications.

Although it has not detailed the exact make-up of the national body, the association says the body’s role should be to set national priorities for skills through a “partnership approach”.

This would fill a space left by a lack of ownership over England’s national strategy on skills, the AoC’s chief executive David Hughes told FE Week.

He added: “The starting point is we have no post-16 education and skills strategy. It doesn’t sit anywhere and there’s nobody tasked with owning that – that is a problem.”

In its report “100% opportunity: the case for a tertiary education system” the AoC says the body could support strategies such as the NHS workforce plan, analyse workforce needs, work with mayoral combined authorities and intervene where there is market failure.

The AoC calls the current system “siloed and fragmented”, with disproportionate funding going “a small number” of people in the higher education sector while the number of apprenticeship starts has fallen by a third in the last decade and the number of people not in education, employment or training (NEET) is on the rise.

A new national body could also help to coordinate England’s 38 local skills improvement plans and its increasingly devolved control over regional skills spending.

The AoC’s proposal appears to echo Labour’s pledge to set up Skills England, a “taskforce” which would work with the government and devolved authorities to “develop outcome agreements” to ensure accountability for skills spending.

Like Labour, the association wouldn’t say whether its proposed new body would replace any of the existing organisations funding and regulating tertiary education, like IfATE, the OfS and the ESFA.

Hughes told FE Week: “The new body should make it clear who’s responsible for what and who’s accountable for what, so it’s a more coherent system. 

“It’s ensuring that the key partners have a say in where we want the system to go, and what the long-term challenges are.

“Currently, that just doesn’t happen in a systematic or consistent way – the messages are not being joined up.”

The body should not add “new layers” of complexity, he added.

However, although it describes the body as a “social partnership” that could include education providers, unions and others, it stops short of political choices such as how much power it would have.

It could be advisory or have more formal powers like the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which analyses and scrutinises the UK’s public finances.

Other countries such as Norway, Australia and Ireland have already set up skills bodies which bring together groups such as education providers and businesses to advise on priority needs.

Ben Rowland, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said his membership body agrees with the need for an “effective, efficient and fair further education system”.

However, he added: “It is also worth pointing out that conspicuous by its absence in the report is any talk of the role of independent training providers (ITPs).

“ITPs deliver the majority of apprenticeships and 89 per cent of Skills Bootcamps. As a result, they are a core part of any FE system and are as much anchor institutions as colleges.”

Colleges should be trusted

AoC wants a future government to “place more trust in colleges” to deliver priority skills needs, to fund every 16 to 18-year-old, including apprentices, through the same budget and “demand-led” funding for more adult learners.

Several proposals are made to build on colleges as “anchor institutions” including giving them powers to award their own higher-level qualifications and apprenticeship end point assessments.

Colleges should be able to set 30 per cent of the content of qualifications to meet local employers’ skills needs, the report states.

The AoC calls for “mission clarity” that schools, colleges and universities are signed up to, ensuring every 16-year-old has a complete education offer.

16 to 18-year-olds should be offered “more hours” of teaching from a broader curriculum and the government’s current English and maths GCSE resit policy should also be “urgently” reconsidered.

Funding should be set out for three years rather than one and should be based on outcomes instead of individual learner numbers.

The pay gap with schoolteachers should also be addressed, while lecturers in key sectors should see their pay lifted to “reflect the market rate”. However, the report does not set out how these proposals would be funded.

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  1. The post 16 education system in the UK reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons where Homer is tasked by a car manufacturer to design a car for an ordinary person.

    He sets about this task by selecting the bits he liked from various existing models from other manufacturers, these were then cobbled together to create something truly hideous, very costly, inefficient and barely drivable.

  2. “Colleges should be trusted”

    Given Mr Hughes’ prior comments in 2017 when a number of CEOs departed leaving huge deficits and an inverse correlation between college finances and CEO salary, one has to ask “quis ipsos custodes custodiet”?