The architect of Labour’s plans for a radical shake-up of government has suggested that control of England’s colleges should be given to local leaders.
Keir Starmer unveiled the party’s report ‘A new Britain: Renewing our democracy and rebuilding our economy’ at Leeds University this morning, which includes bold plans to scrap the House of Lords and form regional clusters of industry.
The report, penned by Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future and led by former prime minister Gordon Brown, also proposes “new responsibilities for linking local employment needs to local skills training, including the devolution of the job centre network and freeing further education colleges from central control”.
There were 15 other members of the commission; four of whom were local authority leaders. The rest was made up of trade union leaders, former ministers and academics.
The report contains few details on the college proposals aside from further devolution of adult skills funding and local skills improvement plans, but at the launch event this morning Brown said: “To link the jobs people need to the companies who need them, we propose 638 job centres transferred from inflexible central control, down to local control.
“To match local skills with local employment needs, the devolution of 200 colleges of education to local control.”
However, there was no mention of devolving 16 to 19 and higher education funding in Brown’s speech or the report, so it is unclear exactly how much control over colleges Labour wants local leaders to have. FE Week has approached the party for more information.
While not formal manifesto pledges at this stage, the party said it would consult on the report before finalising its manifesto at a later date.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it was “vital” colleges engaged with mayors and local government leaders, as well as employers and business groups, and said the AoC would engage to ensure Labour’s proposals “result in a more coherent, joined-up system with colleges at the heart”.
He said that the ambitions go “a lot further than current policy” in building on adult skills devolution and local skills improvement plans, but added: “Colleges will be nervous about any proposals which replace Whitehall bureaucracy and interfere with town hall versions of the same, but they will be keen on good devolution which recognises the need to stimulate demand for skills through economic growth and the need for an inclusive approach which offers the investment colleges need to meet demands.”
Labour’s announcement comes a week after colleges were reclassified by the Office for National Statistics as public sector organisations.
In 2017, Labour’s then-leader Jeremy Corbyn told FE Week at the Association of Colleges’ conference that he feared the independent status of colleges, following their incorporation in 1993, risked them drifting from local communities and the local education authorities, and spoke of forming a model that brings them closer together with that while maintaining a connection with local industry.
A year later, then-shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden refused to rule out bringing colleges under local authority control – a desire echoed by the National Education Union in 2019.
Labour’s new report said that the current system is “highly fragmented” with “at least 49 national employment and skills related schemes or services managed by nine Whitehall departments and agencies”.
The party wants to consolidate various adult education funding streams, such as the adult education budget (AEB), Multiply project cash and Shared Prosperity Fund into one pot, and be fully devolved to current and future mayors and economic partnerships.
In addition, it said that development of local skills improvement plans – key documents which map out current and future skills needs – should be led by directly-elected mayors and combined authorities, rather than local chambers of commerce.
The National Careers Service should be co-commissioned by partnerships of local authorities, combined authorities and metro mayors, it added.
The ambitions come after the party published a report penned by former education secretary David Blunkett in October for a shake-up of the skills system. That included proposals to widen the apprenticeship levy for use on other forms of training too, introducing a skills tax credit for small and medium-sized enterprises, a review of Ofsted, and bringing back the education maintenance allowance among other plans.
Under that report, the party had already proposed an overhaul of the careers service to operate as regional or sub-regional hubs, and forming a national skills taskforce to simplify the local patchwork of bodies overseeing skills and facilitate devolution of those responsibilities.