The Skills Funding Agency shed over 1,000 staff when responsible for apprenticeship providers and college financial oversight, before being brought into the Department for Education (DfE), new analysis by FE Week shows.

But the 60 per cent reduction in staffing resource was not matched by similar cuts to the number of providers, contracts managed, nor overall funding being allocated (see table).

On a per employee basis, the amount of funding to oversee grew from £2.5 million in 2011 to more than £6 million by 2017. This figure is likely to have risen further in recent years, with further growth to the apprenticeship budget along with many more providers given access to the funds.

The level of staffing resources at the agency could form an important feature in the delayed Dame Ney report.

Ney was commissioned by ministers in August last year “to carry out an independent review of how the government monitors colleges’ finances and financial management”.

At the time, the DfE said the terms of reference “in light of the financial difficulties at Hadlow and West Kent & Ashford Colleges” was to “review the way government monitored and exercised its oversight of those colleges’ finances and financial management, and their effectiveness in practice, including the work of the ESFA and the FE Commissioner’s team; and to recommend changes that would reduce the risk of such problems recurring, taking account of colleges’ independence and the need to minimise regulatory burden”.

When shown the SFA staffing analysis, the DfE was unwilling to provide a statement, but did say it is very difficult to compare these two (SFA and ESFA) systems as there has been considerable change in the organisation in the last ten years.

They pointed to a move to do more things digitally, which, they said, has made staff ratios versus monetary value more difficult to analyse.

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  1. Just Saying

    A 60% reductions looks dramatic in the headline. However, this can be viewed differently. Setting up an organisation so that you have the right “seats” identified with the “right people” in those “seats” is the challenge for any business. Based on the 2017 figures above there is slightly less than 2 organisations for each member of staff to look after. If the “right people” knew about funding they could support the providers and also undertake audit checks of them. This it appears is so fundamental to what the organisation does that any organisational planning of the “seats” should have reference primarily to the impact this has on their number doing this role. Sadly, the real world has the “seats” organised very differently. And incredibly there are also too many people employed who don’t know about funding! So in summary, we have mostly the wrong seats with not enough right people in those wrong seats!

  2. Philip Gorst

    Well said ‘Just Saying’.

    Let me get this clear in my head:
    ESFA doles out the money and checks it has been spent correctly.
    Ofsted now ask about ‘financial governance’ in their inspections while paying more regard to ‘safeguarding’ than pass rates.
    Managers of colleges and ITPs ensure that the money flow is sufficient to keep the business afloat.
    Accountants are employed to make sure that the business (College/ITP) is current in the payment of liabilities to HMRC and others.

    Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, Ofsted are issuing penalty notices disguised as ‘inadequate’ so no further funding is coming down the pipe.
    College heads are resigning/retiring/off on garden leave/off sick due to stress, (delete as applicable). Private providers are handing back contracts following ‘inadequate’ Ofsted reports, learners on apprenticeships are trying to find alternative training, employers are not seeing trained staff rolling up for work.
    We have gone far enough with all of this, and we don’t need yet another report to inform us of what we already know.
    Give the levy back to the employers, let them create their own learning and development budget and spend it on what they all really need – proper qualified staff, working to make the business they are involved in profitable.

    But no, we have to work within a Quango created monster that looks something like this:
    An inspection body that does not understand commercial business.
    A funding body with insufficient staff, poor morale and declining work ethic.
    An FE industry absolutely fed up to the back teeth with compliance.
    Employers equally sick with paying levy money into a bottomless pit.
    Another ‘government target’ that will never be achieved under the present structure.
    No-one in the government is ever going to agree, of course. But hey, I’m just a tax payer. Now – where are we with HS2?

  3. Move to digital

    Classic mistake in the public sector when you see ” a move to do more things digitally…” as a way to cut costs.

    The trouble is, the computer is saying “No” far too often, and the people we need to talk to to understand the complexities, don’t really know why it’s saying what it is saying.

    The more we have query, the more we ask, the more demand we place on those without the necessary understanding to answer.

    What is it that John Seddon says about ‘failure demand’?

  4. I’m getting very long in the tooth with over 20 years in FE, but I remember when every college had a designated LSC/SFA relationship manager. You’d meet with your RM on a face to face basis at least once a term: an experience that was often challenging, occasionally uncomfortable, but generally worthwhile.

    In my experience these were people who understood the sector, the funding methodology and data systems and – perhaps most importantly – how and why colleges might run into problems with the quality of their teaching and learning, or their finances.

    Much of that knowledge and experience has been lost and the capacity of the ESFA to effectively support struggling colleges has been greatly reduced. Where once we had a genuine point of contact with our funding body/regulator, we now have a “portal”. At the same time the effective rate of funding for most FE students has been slashed.

    Why is there any surprise that colleges continue to fail?!