The government has clarified its position on local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) after FE leaders were left scratching their heads after what one sector leader called “bizarre” official advice.

The confusion revolves around the extent to which LEPs had sign-off on 16 to 18 provision.

On Monday, March 18, the government said that “all FE learning providers must consult and agree their provision with LEPs to ensure the courses they offer to 16 to 18-year-olds reflect local labour requirements”.

However, the Department for Education (DfE) later told FE Week: “Ultimately, schools and colleges remain autonomous and are free to decide how to meet the needs of their students.”

The issue surfaced after the government’s response to Lord Heseltine’s No Stone Unturned report, which, among other things, called for power to be devolved to LEPs.

In last week’s Budget, Chancellor George Osborne further indicated the government’s acceptance of the former deputy prime minister’s ideas, by making reference to a “Single Local Growth Fund…operational by April 2015”.

However, James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, questioned the wisdom of giving LEPs sign-off on its largely academic 16 to 18 provision.

He said: “Given that around three-quarters of what we deliver is either AS or A-level, it would be bizarre to insist that we must agree our provision with LEPs.

“It is interesting that there is not a corresponding requirement for schools or academies to agree their provision in this way, even though many have a sixth form and are in direct competition with our members.”

But a government spokesperson has now clarified the apparently conflicting guidance.

He said the DfE was right, and added: “We are encouraging colleges to have a strong focus on work and meeting skills shortages.

“As part of this we want LEPs to have an influence over skills policy and to set local skills strategies against which colleges can respond, with chartered status for FE colleges being dependent on taking account of partnership priorities.”

Programmes offered by colleges for learners of all ages are already designed in line with labour market intelligence.”

The issue of LEPs remains a concern among FE leaders, though, with the government having accepted 81 of Lord Heseltine’s 89 recommendations, including FE providers having to consult with LEPs.

And the Chancellor said more decisions on LEPs — including the possible inclusion of the adult skills budget in a single funding pot — would be made in the annual spending review, in June.

Lynne Sedgmore, 157 Group executive director, said: “Programmes offered by colleges for learners of all ages are already designed in line with labour market intelligence and in partnerships with employers.

“Formal scrutiny by LEPs and employers must add value to what is already a rigorous quality assurance and partnership process.

“How can colleges be assured and convinced that LEPs have the capacity and skills to
carry out this role effectively, and not just add an additional layer of bureaucracy and cost
to a skills system that works very effectively and is fit for purpose?”

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “Colleges are keen to correspond with, and be influenced by, LEPs in how the skills funding colleges currently receive is deployed to best effect. But this does not mean that we need to re-create the bureaucracy of training and enterprise councils or similar.”

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