Reflecting on the departures of the ‘big guns’

Two big guns in the further education and skills sector this week announced plans to step down. The fact that embargoed government statements on both were issued simultaneously made it look like a dumping operation – a rumour the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was quick to scotch.

Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), it seems, decided to make an exit last August but was happy to stay on till summer 2012. Odd then that there has been no hint of succession planning. Simon Waugh, chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), is going quicker – in March. But then most people who know the NAS reckon his chief operating officer, David Way, has been running the show anyway for the best part of a year.

Whatever their reasons, it gives a perfect opportunity to reflect on where they have taken FE in the past year or so. Russell himself is presiding over a downsizing exercise. The SFA saw £250m of college money moved beyond his control to the UKCES last autumn in a pilot plan giving businesses the power to design, develop and purchase vocational training. Some colleges bridled at the move; others saw it as an opportunity for closer employer involvement.

The scheme, giving greater Treasury control, was dreamed up in Number 10 and Russell has shown little resistance to such moves. After all, he was seconded to the Treasury from KPMG and went on to run the Learning and Skills Council and subsequently the SFA after the disastrous 2009 capital building crisis. Favouring the Exchequer in this way has not endeared him to, BIS directors. Supporting direct funding of employers went down like a lead balloon.

Further downsizing of the SFA followed a review in November when it had its powers reduced. This won’t have pleased Russell who has always identified closely with those powers. He is prone to talk not of what SFA can do but “what I can do”. And he reminded journalists at the Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference last autumn: “I am legally responsible” and “I’m the SFA in body.” Technically true at the time but not now. With around 80 per cent of FE funding being for 16-19s and the unrelenting rise in apprenticeships, in terms of driving things, don’t the YPLA, DfE and Treasury increasingly count for more?

Talking of apprenticeships, we recently had FE and skills minister John Hayes’ announcing a one-year minimum for 16-18 apprenticeships, which may yet be extended to older groups. “By setting down a marker about the minimum length of an apprenticeship, we will drive up quality,” said Hayes. But this is not how Waugh saw things as FE Week exposed inadequate schemes – often as little as 12 weeks. He insisted NAS was monitoring and assuring quality. But evidence mounted and opposition MPs, notably Gordon Marsden, railed against them until Hayes took action. But not before he announced a record 440,000 learners starting an apprenticeship in 2010-11, 50 per cent up on last year and another 250,000 in the pipeline.

None of this is to belittle the achievements of Russell and Waugh. Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, said: “They leave as converts to the cause of further education and we are grateful for all their hard work and efforts on behalf of colleges and their students.” Hayes praised Russell for the way he turned the SFA into “an organisation that is playing a key role in promoting and funding FE and giving young people and adults the skills they need…” And thanks to Waugh he said, “Apprenticeships are at the heart of our drive to equip people of all ages with the skills employers need to prosper and compete.”

Against the background of unemployment, particularly with latest 118,000 rise to 2.7m (8.4 per cent), 1.04m young jobless, most consider that apprenticeship and training policy has moved in the right direction. But how sustainable is it, given the NAS’s dark mutterings about the impossible assessment costs and unmanageable workloads threatening government ambitions for apprenticeships?

Meanwhile, in colleges the government has created a single adult skills budget for this year, full of flexibility – once they meet their indicative targets. However, college principals are increasingly pointing out, the list of central government indicative priorities, such as wider skills for employment and pre-apprenticeship training, is growing. Just how much will be left for local responsiveness and those long-promised freedoms as unemployment rises?

But by then, Russell and Waugh will have moved on long ago.


By Ian Nash

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