Despite the risks, training providers must grasp devolution

30 Apr 2022, 7:00

Combined authorities might favour ‘bricks and mortar’ provision so training providers need to be ready, writes Jane Hickie

On Thursday next week, large parts of the country will get to vote in this year’s local elections. Many areas will elect their councillors, and in South Yorkshire there will also be a metro mayor election.

While most people are aware that local government is responsible for delivering a range of our local services, we sometimes forget that councillors and mayors are also in charge of a growing amount of post-16 education.

More devolved powers to come

In recent years, there has been more political will to devolve skills policy and funding decisions to local and combined authorities.

This means – at least in theory – that those making decisions about skills provision understand the needs of local learners and labour markets.

We currently have ten devolved city regions across England, each with a directly elected mayor.

Every area has a different ‘devo deal’, meaning varying powers and funding, but all share the commonality of control over the devolved Adult Education Budget (AEB).

This is significant funding for adult skills to the combined tune of £788 million per year, and city regions are in line for more powers, as the government reveals more about its plans for ‘levelling up’ the UK.

The recently published levelling-up white paper sets out plans for every part of England – that wants one – to have a devolution deal in place by 2030.

At least nine more areas are expected to announce devolution deals by the autumn.

This would take the percentage of AEB devolved locally from around 60 per cent to 80 per cent. This in turn casts significant doubt on whether there will ever be an Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA)-led procurement on AEB again.

After last year’s farce, this is perhaps welcome news for many training providers.

What’s the landscape?

In line with ambitions in the white paper, even more skills policy and funding is heading local. Local and combined authorities have just been informed of their allocations for delivering the £270 million for the Multiply programme, which is due to come in from spring this year.

Furthermore, a high proportion of the £1.6 billion national skills fund – including free level 3 adult qualifications and skills bootcamps – is now in the hands of combined authority commissioners, many of whom are already undertaking commissioning exercises.

Despite limited details, we do know that local areas will be administrating the £2.6 billion UK shared prosperity fund.

In short, there are now billions of pounds of skills funding in the hands of local and regional decision-makers – funding that was previously controlled by the ESFA.

Risks and rewards for training providers

It’s clear that there are some risks to further devolution. A diverse approach to commissioning can mean that providers are having to bid for multiple different funding pots, each with different nuances compared to a centralised and uniform system.

There is also the age-old issue of combined authorities favouring ‘bricks and mortar’ provision in localities, putting national providers at a disadvantage in certain areas.

But there are also some great examples of best practice in devolved commissioning. Tees Valley Combined Authority has adopted a 100 per cent commissioning model, treating colleges, local authorities and independent training providers (ITPs) with parity.

However, many others tend to commission in a similar way to the ESFA – with far too much AEB going straight to grant-funded providers, and the scraps being commissioned or subbed out to ITPs. 

Regardless of how any of us feels about skills devolution, the horse has well and truly bolted the stable and training providers should be fully aware of the opportunities and challenges that devolution brings.

There is a great opportunity here to demonstrate what they can offer learners and employers up and down the country.

Without doubt, local government now has significant powers to make decisions that reflect the needs of local communities.

So, when we go to vote next Thursday, we should remember it’s not just bin collections, potholes and libraries at stake – but our local skills priorities too.

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