The much-heralded Skills Bill contains a Department for Education “power-grab” and will “fail to meet the scale of the challenge that years of neglect” of FE have caused, Labour has said.
Writing for FE Week, shadow skills minister Toby Perkins warned that many “smaller” colleges will be looking nervously at the government’s expressed right to force mergers “without recourse to local circumstances or consultation”.
He said there is also “little expectation” of a role for metro mayors and nor does there appear to be “any enthusiasm for Local Enterprise Partnerships”.
Perkins added that in the “many hundreds of meetings” he has held during his first year in this post, “I confess I have never heard anybody suggest that a more hands-on role for Gavin Williamson was central to ensuring Britain is equipped with a well-skilled workforce”.
Yet here, the education secretary “awards himself new powers to intervene in ‘failing’ colleges, to merge or replace colleges, to select or to sack ‘employer representative’ bodies, and to dictate whether colleges are fulfilling the requirements these bodies lay down”.
“Poorly defined local skills plans risk shutting out metro mayors and combined authorities, many of which have democratic accountability for local skills and economic regeneration,” Perkins added.
Local skills improvement plans led by employers and new powers for the education secretary to intervene when colleges “fail to meet local need” are central new pieces of legislation in the Skills Bill.
Batting for the government in this week’s edition of FE Week, skills minister Gillian Keegan insisted that the Bill is “not about taking back control of colleges”.
“This is about ensuring we can continue to sustainably offer high-quality education and training to as many people as possible, and that the training on offer meets the needs of employers and local communities,” she added.
Other sector leaders have cautiously welcomed the reforms.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said the Bill gives “sweeping new powers to end FE college autonomy as we know it”.
“Power without proper resources is futile,” he continued. “And too much centralisation of power without devolving resources to individuals, employers and local communities will not work either.”
Bewick said the federation “broadly supports” the direction of travel of the reforms but will “examine carefully” the clauses that appear to change the focus of independently regulated qualifications, particularly those that give the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education new powers to accredit technical courses.
“In no circumstances must we return to a situation where public agencies are marking their own homework when it comes to ensuring public confidence in apprenticeships and qualifications. That’s why Ofqual was set up in the first place.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the Bill puts post-16 education, skills and colleges in the “forefront of the government’s priorities as look to a post-pandemic and post-Brexit world”.
He added that his association is looking forward to hearing the proposals on what will trigger interventions and how DfE proposes to measure and assess the degree to which colleges are meeting local needs.
“Getting the balance between accountability and intervention powers is a bit like walking a tightrope, and requires careful consideration and fine tuning, but colleges are confident that they meet local learner and employer needs, so we’re confident that there is a way to ensure the measures are fair and proportionate.”
Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Jane Hickie welcomed the “employer-informed approach” and is “generally comfortable with the direction of travel that the Bill is pursuing”.
She said the House of Lords can play a “very useful role” in probing the government on how the legislation’s clauses on local skills improvement plans will apply in practice to independent providers, especially as the impact assessment document states that the duty to “have regard” to the plans “does not mean that a provider is required to implement or deliver the skills needs outlined in the plan”.
Another key reform in the Bill is the introduction of a new register that private providers will need to be on to be eligible for funding and subcontracting.
Hickie said AELP has “no argument” with new legislative measures to protect the interests of learners.
However, “where we have serious concerns is that being on the list will, according to the government, have ‘significant impact’ on the costs of smaller providers because, for example, of the imposition of professional indemnity insurance.
“If this is a backdoor method of trying to reduce the number of ITPs in the market, it could backfire because many are either specialist providers or serve areas out of easy reach of a local college.”