The Autumn Statement proposals for skills policies and strategies may turn out to be less benign than they appear, says Steve Sawbridge

Colleges must adapt to a new landscape following the Chancellor’s implicit support for local employer partnerships (LEPs).

The Independent Commission on Colleges in their Communities noted with concern that the pace of development in LEPs was slow with remits unclear, a finding borne out by AoC’s own survey published earlier this year.  Their record on skills has been variable.

From 2015 LEPs will benefit from a single pot of growth-related funding to support the delivery of a strategic plan for local growth.  And, yes, this includes funding for skills.  But please note: not all funding.

There’s some encouragement for college representation on LEP boards. Provided, of course, that whoever sits on the board speaks for the whole local FE community and is mandated by it. But the Autumn Statement proposals for skills policies and strategies may turn out to be less benign.

The development of a strategic plan for skills makes good sense.  If you don’t have one, how do you know where you’re going or who’s behind the wheel?  But for colleges, if this is the basis on which a devolved skills budget is allocated, there’s clearly a danger of a return to external plan-led control; an anathema in the context of freedoms and flexibilities.

How to respond?  Where skills plans are concerned it’s best to be in the driving seat.  And what’s going to carry most weight is a coherent collective response from colleges within the LEP area.

The notion of self-organised groups of colleges first emerged in the Foster report of 2005. Articulated more explicitly in Skills for Sustainable Growth (2010), self-organised networks are seen as the mechanism for engagement with LEPs and the means to ensure alignment between economic development priorities and the skills provision available locally. It clearly is an idea whose time has come.

There’s clearly a danger of a return to external plan-led control”

But what will make these networks something more than a local provider “consultative forum”? And why should colleges put aside years of institutional self-interest and preservation for the benefit of the wider FE network?

Two reasons: a growing and genuine recognition that collaboration can achieve more for all; and a more immediate and practical response to increased competition from schools and the 57 other post-16 varieties of provider currently available.

There are already many good examples of self-organised networks working effectively with LEPs and other local partners – the network of colleges in Bristol, for example.  But it’s been interesting to see a collaborative grouping of colleges come together in Greater Birmingham and Solihull, something those who know FE in Birmingham might at one time have considered impossible.

It’s symptomatic of a genuinely new way of working.  A recognition that external partners will listen more attentively to a collective voice; that colleges can shape, influence and deliver skills provision, particularly where LEPs are struggling to articulate skills’ needs.

The opportunities for gap filling in provision can be more easily achieved where colleges collaborate on the basis of their strengths.  A strong unity will be a significant asset in attracting inward investment and can only enhance the strong individual brands of colleges.

There’s still a lot to do – not least on the sharing and use of data and the development of a collective approach to quality across the network but a new collaborative culture is very definitely emerging.

Brenda Sheils, principal at Solihull College, put it succinctly recently when she said it’s not just about being on-side with the LEP but inside, working equally with officers in the LEP secretariat as well as contributing at board level.

Ultimately this will be the real test of the maturity of the partnership; recognition that it is just that – one in which the collective strengths of all partners, including colleges, are utilised and mutually respected.

Steve Sawbridge is the
West Midlands regional director for AoC

To read what David Frost, CBE, chair of the LEP Network has to say on LEPs click here

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