The government’s devolution and localism agenda creates opportunities for the sector to refine its mission and purpose, says Ayub Khan.

Devolution in FE and skills is much talked of by politicians at national and local levels and a great deal is expected of it, though it remains very much a developing area of policy. While the Localism Act 2011 firmly cemented the concept of devolution not only in legislation but also in the public consciousness, the detail is not yet clear and it is up to the sector to shape how this will look in practice for our sector.

A new FETL-funded report, The Long-Term Implications of Devolution and Localism for FE in England, by Ewart Keep, in conjunction with the AoC, alerts us to the potential danger that the promise of devolution is being oversold – or, at least, over-interpreted. Certainly, he urges an awareness that devolution may not be necessarily a wholly positive thing – especially not if it means no more than a shift in who is held accountable for failure.

Keep poses an important question: How meaningful is central government’s commitment to devolution? Currently, only provision funded through the adult education budget is locally controlled, accounting for 2.3 per cent of total English expenditure on education and training. Even here, devolved power is heavily qualified by national control of learning entitlements.

The devolution of the adult education budget and area reviews, alongside the longer-term trend towards devolved solutions and relative degrees of local autonomy in policy thinking about education, represent both opportunities and risks for providers.

As things stand, the rewards of devolution, whatever they are, will not be brought to our door. If we want them, we will have to step up.

Elsewhere, there seems little prospect of government releasing its grip on key levers of education and skills policy, such as apprenticeship funding. Keep makes another important point: unless the sector can be clear and positive about what purpose it serves and how it can contribute, there is a risk FE and skills will be squeezed between the competing demands of local and national interests.

Localism (in the sense of regional bodies taking control of the agenda) nevertheless represents a bright light in the perfect storm of reform that is reshaping our sector. There are real opportunities and Keep makes clear that we will have to fight for our place at the table. We have to say who we are and what we think localism should mean, to close the gap between the current theory and practice of devolution.

How can the sector make the most of these opportunities? For one thing, it must broaden the conversation and think smartly and creatively about the sector in the round, rather than just some of its institutions. Some have expressed disappointment that the area review process has so narrow a focus on colleges and has been, in a way, quite unambitious.

The rewards of devolution will not be brought to our door

Certainly, in future, independent training providers and third sector providers must at least be included in our thinking, says Keep. The question arises as to whether the sector is making the most of the FE estate in ensuring the skills needs of individuals, employers and communities are met. Is it engaging with the right people in the right ways?

The key to all of this is collaboration. Better use can be made of the important public assets that comprise the FE estate by combining the resources and know-how of FE colleges and independent providers.

We need to demonstrate that the sector can set the pace here, put institutional interests aside and offer genuine leadership of thinking in making our communities better place in which to live.

Keep’s implication is clear: government could do more to ensure the promise of devolution. Robust central regulation is needed, as is the freedom to innovate and take risks.

The FE and skills sector must be bold, creative and self-confident in response; refining its mission and purpose, in the spirit of collaboration and enterprise, to take full advantage of what devolution can offer.

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