“New powers” for the education secretary to intervene in colleges and plans for funding reform have been revealed today as the much-anticipated FE white paper is published.
The ‘Skills for Jobs White Paper’ was released this morning and includes a raft of measures to “realign” the post-16 system around the needs of employers.
While the Department for Education has claimed the plans are “revolutionary”, sector leaders say that it “falls a bit short” of this ambition as it mostly builds on existing aspects of the sector.
FE Week understands the Treasury put a stop to transformational changes owing to its switch from a multi-year to a one-year spending review in 2020.
The white paper’s reforms (see list below), released to the press ahead of publication, include a greater role for employer groups, such as Chambers of Commerce as previously reported by FE Week, in developing courses on offer, new college “business centres”, and further details on a new lifelong loan entitlement, which will not kick in until after the next general election, as part of the prime minister’s lifetime skills guarantee.
The white paper also sets out plans to “overhaul” the funding and accountability rules for the post-16 sector, which will be consulted on later this year. The DfE was already planning to run a consultation for its new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund in the spring.
As part of the reforms the DfE says it will “introduce new powers to intervene when colleges are failing to deliver good outcomes for the communities they serve”.
The debate of college ownership has been a running theme over the past year, most recently when Education and Skills Funding Agency director, Matthew Atkinson, told MPs in November he would “definitely like more power” to intervene in the running of colleges.
The DfE has long-running concerns that there are colleges and areas across England with “persistent weaknesses” that they do not have the power to resolve until it is too late.
This can result in costly intervention measures, such as hefty bailouts and even insolvency as the sector saw with the Hadlow College Group which involved tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money.
The DfE told FE Week the new powers to be drawn up will enable preventative action to be taken, ahead of failure, or “where there is an area-based failure rather than simply that of an individual college”.
“This represents an improvement on existing statutory powers which only apply when the failure has already occurred, and cannot be used in a preventative capacity, or where the problem is a collective weakness, not just the failure of an individual institution,” a spokesperson said.
Longer periods of “active support” post-intervention will also be implemented, as will more regular dialogue about emerging risks to help prevent failures.
The white paper also sets out plans for colleges and training providers to be “accountable for the outcomes they achieve with funding to ensure value for money for the taxpayer”.
Skills minister Gillian Keegan hinted that a move to an outcomes-based funding model was on the cards in September when she told an Association of Employment and Learning Providers conference that the FE sector should judge the quality of their training programmes on the jobs that learners end up in.
The white paper sets out plans for the currently complex FE funding system to be simplified and streamlined, relaxing ringfences and reporting, strengthening governance and subcontracting, and will consider a move to a multi-year funding regime.
The DfE has also today finally published its interim response to Philip Augar’s review of Post-18 Education and Funding, which was released way back in May 2019. The final conclusion will however not be set out until the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, “cautiously” welcomed the white paper, saying it is “perhaps not quite as comprehensive as it could have been in terms of covering the range of transformational reforms of post-compulsory tertiary education that the [Augar] review panel envisaged”.
“Overall, what has been announced today is very much a restatement of what has already been agreed — a useful ‘work in progress’,” he added.
“We look forward to the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review for the more ‘revolutionary’ aspects of what was promised previously.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the white paper is an “ambitious package of measures which can deliver a significant shift in how we support the lifelong education”.
He added that the reforms “build on what colleges already do well so it’s not about taking a wrecking ball to existing infrastructure or making colleges start from scratch, but investing in them to play a bigger part in supporting local businesses and local communities”.
Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director Jane Hickie added that strengthened accountability for provider performance is “supported but we have been here a few times before.
“We hope that real teeth are evident from now in tackling poor quality and that a good track record of delivery is properly recognised in future contract awards, whether the funding system is local or national.”
The key measures in the white paper, in the words of the DfE, include:
. Business groups, including Chambers of Commerce, working alongside colleges to develop tailored skills plans to meet local training needs; supported by a £65 million Strategic Development Fund to put the plans into action and establish new College Business Centres to drive innovation and enhanced collaboration with employers.
. Giving employers a central role in designing almost all technical courses by 2030, to ensure that the education and training people receive is directly linked to the skills needed for real jobs.
. Boosting the quality and uptake of Higher Technical Qualifications – that provide the skills that many employers say they need and that can lead to higher wages – by introducing newly approved qualifications from September 2022 supported by a government-backed brand and quality mark.
. Changing the law so that from 2025 people can access flexible student finance so they can train and retrain throughout their lives, supported by funding in 21/22 to test ways to boost access to more modular and flexible learning.
. Launching a nationwide recruitment campaign to get more talented individuals to teach in further education and investing in high quality professional development including a new Workforce Industry Exchange Programme.
. Overhauling the funding and accountability rules, so funding is better targeted at supporting high quality education and training that meets the needs of employers; and introducing new powers to intervene when colleges are failing to deliver good outcomes for the communities they serve.