An independent review has been launched to ensure the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) “remains effective into the future”, the government has announced.

The review will look at the “operating model, governance, accountability and impact” of the organisation. It is part of wider programme of reviews into arm’s length bodies.

The ESFA is accountable for £65 billion of funding for the education and training sector. It regulates academics, further education and sixth form colleges, and training providers, as well as delivering the National Careers Service, apprenticeships and T Levels.

Professor Sir David Bell, vice chancellor at the University of Sunderland will lead the review, which will run until early 2022.

It comes after the ESFA’s chief executive Eileen Milner stepped down this year, as revealed by FE Week. She has been replaced on an interim basis by former regional schools commissioner John Edwards.

READ MORE ESFA boss Eileen Milner to become combined authority chief executive

Academies minister Baroness Berridge said the ESFA is responsible for ensuring funding “gets to where it is needed and is properly spent, among a wide range of other vital functions.

“We will examine the ESFA and will identify opportunities for improvement, and areas of success on which we can build, so that it continues to deliver for the public and continues to represent a responsible use of taxpayers’ money.”

Bell will be support by “a team of civil servants” and will have access to a “challenge panel” who will provide “insight and feedback drawing on their personal experience and expertise”. The panel is yet to be appointed.

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  1. Paul Griffin

    David Bell was a solid permanent secretary at the then DfES and current senior civil servants at both DfE and ESFA could learn more than a thing or two from him.

    The “challenge panel” will be critical and appointments need to represent the sector not just the usual ‘representative bodies’. The review should seek direct input from those on the recieving end of the ‘services’ provided.

    It is clear in some of its actions the ESFA has created cottage industries to keep people busy and in jobs, I name RoATP as an egregious example of constant tinkering

    An arms length body should be exactly that and it’s clear that the ESFA is now sadly merely the gun that shoots the DfE’s bullets and once sensible open and honest conversations between previous funding bodies and institutions has stopped for fear from civil servants that they’ll get quoted in dispatches.

  2. Sinking

    Atkins gone
    Milner gone
    TU team gone
    ESFA policy gone from aggressive ‘bully boy’ to supportive ‘care supporter’.
    Millions gone in wasted projects and failed mergers

    Now, independent review into effectiveness. It looks like someone has realised what a mess the last 6 years has been.

    Next, ‘calls’ for Atkins knighthood to be rescinded?

    Heads will roll……

  3. Simon Griffiths

    The ‘ten year’ quango/ALB rule is kicking in. 2012 saw the creation on the EFA (with the SFA a year or so previously).

    The landscape is more fragmented than ever, and times have changed. The academies side of the house has grown massively while College numbers have decreased through merger and academisation of 6th Form Colleges, but financial instability has on the whole has increased. Private providers come and go; with apprenticeship reforms creating new overnight, but highly risky, providers (also with increased access to AEB) and for others coupled with the ESFAs black and white response to poor inspections have had to close. The IfATE has an increasing role with accountability and response to the sector/employers which is not always responsive or clear. Commissioners and their teams have created tensions and sometimes inconsistency of approach. Regional Mayors with policy and funding powers over adult budgets have created divergence, opportunity but also potential duplication of effort and the Skills Bill brings a role for Chambers. And all of the above have funding and regulatory rules/guidance which invariably increases and never gets cut back. Remember the more you overthink the plumbing the easier it is to clog the drain.

    All in all the review is timely. Maybe a FEFC model again with clear links to local and regional recognised structures and to ensure Colleges have a distinct and clear voice in local, regional and national government may not be such a bad thing or is it a case of be careful what you wish for or better the devil you know….?

  4. Amy Ealing

    “….the ESFA is responsible for ensuring funding gets to where it is needed and is properly spent” … oh dear look no further than the AEB car crash procurement.

  5. Phil Hatton

    Having been involved enough to see the FEFC, TECs, LSC, EFA and ESFA I would certainly say that the national and regional model of funding based on the FEFC was the way to go. But government should also look to see the benefits of an wider FE inspectorate to closely monitor the spending effectiveness in the sector rather than the one size fits all, cradle to grave model that is Ofsted. We might then have apprenticeships in areas such as adult care that can be delivered for the funding available

  6. Dan Jones

    The pandemic truly showed the ‘effectiveness’ wheels come off an already rickety vehicle with so many after service parts added that its once straightforward job of delivering funding to the front line and oversight of funding policy and usage has become lost in a melee of bureaucracy and lack of practical knowledge/understanding of the institution types they fund/wag their fingers at.

    The whole organisation is geared to weighing the pig not fattening the pig; and the pandemic set free a new appetite for measuring stuff from the comfort of their collective living rooms. I’m sure they’re good people individually but not a single person ventured out, lent a hand or for the most part picked up a phone other than to tell you off for not doing some daily return or another.

    The remoteness and basic lack of common sense leads to frustration, head scratching and actual anger. Let’s take CDF as a minor example, I could name many. The ESFA continued to churn out ‘revised’ guidance, passive aggressive letters on clawback, reminders about returns, the list goes on. Like a parallel universe whilst the rest of the world is saying the daily routine ain’t the same anymore or how about using it a different way. The response was well it’s part of your funding agreement or the treasury wants to account for how money is spent. The ESFA should have been our voice in government circles but no it dutifully did as it was told. I get that, but the lack of acknowledgement from its own staff that the asks are bonkers would have been something. I’m sure the ESFA fed back all our concerns and suggestions, but if the ESFA isn’t being listened to inside the DfE that tells you all you need to know about how it’s perceived internally.

    All I know is many were taken off day to day duties to work on ‘Covid Response’ so begs the question whether their original jobs where required in the first place.

    I note a response has said heads will roll. Sadly no, civil servants will get moved around and not held to account for any errors in judgement. I look forward to the head of T level implementation becoming the next permanent secretary at the DfE in a few years for a job well done.