AoC publishes ‘blueprint’ for new skills quango

It comes as Labour confirms plans to introduce a new body called 'Skills England'

It comes as Labour confirms plans to introduce a new body called 'Skills England'

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A “clear blueprint” for a new quango to oversee post-16 education and skills strategy has been released today. 

Independent research commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC) has fleshed out a plan for a new arms-length body that is hoped to shift England away from overly centralised and employer-led skills policymaking. 

Shared exclusively with FE Week, the AoC paper has been published a day after Labour confirmed its policy to create “Skills England” – a body that would “bring together partners with a drive to give coherence and direction to our skills landscape, not replicate existing functions”. 

The association claims its report, by former UK Commission for Employment and Skills deputy director Lesley Giles who now runs research company Work Advance, is a “clear blueprint” for what such a new skills body should look like, and how it would work “in practice”.  

It challenges the current government’s employer-led approach, which the association said “has not been successful”.  

However, aside from confirming the body would be funded by the government, there were no costings, how many employees it would need or how existing quangos would be impacted. 

Treasury opposition costings estimate Labour’s Skills England at more than £10 million a year with 100 staff. Giles told FE Week her vision for such a body would not exceed those estimations. 

Multi-department sponsorship

The report makes clear that the Department for Education’s analytical and research team, the Unit for Future Skills, would be subsumed into the new body. 

It would operate in addition to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Office for Students (OfS) – organisations that separately oversee the strategy and policy of tertiary education. 

But instead of being led solely by the DfE, the new body would be a non-departmental body sponsored by different departments. 

The proposed “lead” department would be either the Department for Business because of its “oversight role on economic and industrial policy”, or the Cabinet Office, which has “already had a role running cross-departmental cabinet meetings on skills policy and programmes”. 

Strategy co-ordination and ramped up research

Giles’ report said there was “limited evidence” that the OfS, ESFA and IfATE “ever meet” to consider skills issues collectively from a system-wide perspective. 

This “separates” HE, FE and technical education, which “limits collaboration between providers in the sectors”. This system also “increasingly controls the levels of authority, autonomy and resources of local institutions, including around partnership working”. 

While the DfE had launched a programme of skills reforms for the current system through white papers, such as Skills for Jobs in 2021, there was “no single vision, or indeed collective ambition, capturing all government skills activities as a whole”, she said. 

The new body would aim to fill that gap and “enable a whole of government approach” to scrutinise England’s portfolio of skills initiatives, including by “allocating distinct roles” of policy innovation, design and delivery to the various agencies. 

It would also “empower” designated providers and FE colleges to have scope to adapt and flex courses and apprenticeships to reflect local demands. 

Experts would be responsible for independently assessing the “value” of different programmes and qualifications, and for proposing continued funding for those in demand or scrapping those that weren’t. 

The body would have its own research budget and establish a “strategic skills research and labour market analysis programme” to provide “authoritative” evidence on skills and workforce trends. 

It would develop a “national framework” for directing data collection, co-ordinating analysis and undertaking its own research directly. The oversight body would also “support and review” different partners’ work, such as local skills improvement plans and mayoral combined authorities, to produce overarching local and sectoral skills assessments. 

‘Serious redesign’

A key function would be setting long-term strategic goals that involved an “overarching framework for action” which could deal with “megatrends” that have an affect globally, such as climate change and pandemics.  

The oversight body would work with funding bodies to “consider how the national, sectoral and local priorities are reflected in funding allocations supporting investments in different skills programmes within the post-16 skills system”. 

It would also review the future role of “macro policy” incentives such as the apprenticeship levy and propose alternatives. 

Giles said: “Our current system in England is too centralised. A new oversight body can provide the basis not only to work with partners to better anticipate and understand evolving employment and skills challenges, but to innovate and find effective solutions to address them.” 

AoC chief executive David Hughes added: “We have been clear that the disjointed and confused governance of post-16 education and skills needs a serious redesign. 

“For the past 14 years, the government has tried to put employers in the driving seat, but … this has not been successful. Instead, we need a new national skills body which, at its core, is a social partnership that brings together the ambitions, needs, talents, understanding and resources of all stakeholders, including employers.”

Andy Westwood, professor of public policy, government and business at the University of Manchester, agreed that a skills oversight body, supporting stronger partnership and co-ordination across the post-16 skills system, is “central to enhancing a policy architecture, beset with challenges, fragmentation and churn”.

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