Colleges should be forced to surrender their powers to decide what courses they run to new, local FE directors, a report published today from a former adviser to education ministers has said.

Think tank EDSK’s director Tom Richmond has today launched ‘Further consideration: Creating a new role, purpose and direction for the FE sector’, which says new FE directors should arrange provision “in line with local social and economic needs, as well as eliminating duplication of courses and promoting specialisation among nearby colleges”.

Colleges would retain responsibility for their day-to-day running, but would have to hand FE directors, based in every local enterprise partnership or mayoral combined authority, final say on “important strategic decisions such as the courses and specialisms that each college offers”.

The directors would also decide how the adult education budget is distributed among their colleges.

Writing for FE Week, Richmond, who is a former senior adviser to previous skills ministers Nick Boles and Matt Hancock, said: “Ultimately, this is not about what is best for colleges – it’s about what is best for learners. With this prize in mind, the loss of some autonomy for individual colleges is a step in the right direction.”

EDSK’s report has been funded by the Further Education Trust for Leadership, and a trust spokesperson said: “We think the time has come for a fresh and open discussion about the state of the sector alongside the pros and cons of college autonomy.”

It comes ahead of the FE White Paper due for publication this autumn, with one option of giving the government greater control over colleges being considered.

Other recommendations in Richmond’s report include splitting colleges into separate institutions (community, sixth-form and technology colleges) focused on different qualification levels, increasing the base rate of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds to £5,000 by 2024/25, and giving learners a new “lifetime loan limit” of £75,000 to spend on education and training.

Colleges have chosen to focus on what is best for them rather than what is best for their learners

‘Further Consideration’ seeks to build on findings and recommendations made in last year’s post-18 education Augar Review, which found examples of both over-capacity and a lack of specialism in colleges.

The review recommended the government use capital funding to create partnerships, group structures and specialisation to deliver a “national network of colleges”.

EDSK’s new report’s recommendations were drawn up after interviews with 21 academics, policy experts and stakeholders, including Hartlepool College principal Darren Hankey, HOLEX policy director Sue Pember, and Bedford College chief executive Ian Pryce.

It found that “excessive competition” among colleges has done “more harm than good”.

“Often in response to financial pressures, colleges have chosen to focus on what is best for them rather than what is best for their learners, employers and their local area,” Richmond says.

“This has resulted in duplicated courses, a lack of specialisation among colleges and unnecessary confusion for learners and employers – all of which make the sector less financially secure.”

Colleges have previously come in for high-profile criticism for how the courses they provide do not tally with their areas’ economic needs or students’ job prospects.

Earlier this year Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman called out a number of colleges for “flooding a local job market with young people with low-level arts and media qualifications,” while there is a large demand for skills in areas such as green energy.

<a href=httpsfeweekcouk20200909minister says the quality of an fe course should be judged by job outcomes target= blank rel=noopener noreferrer>CLICK TO READ Minister says the quality of an FE course should be judged by job outcomes<a>

And last week, skills minister Gillian Keegan and Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes both said colleges ought to be judged, and funded according to Hughes, on the outcomes for their learners, rather than their enrolment.

FE Week asked the AoC whether they supported the idea of final course decisions being taken by an FE director, which would result in the “loss of some autonomy for individual colleges” as Richmond says, but they dodged the question.

Instead, AoC deputy chief executive Julian Gravatt said it “isn’t that colleges should lose their autonomy to decide what courses they should run, but rather have a collective responsibility and autonomy to agree a coherent strategy across the local system”.

“This sort of collective approach allows for much more strategic interventions – which if we get right should see colleges feel empowered and able to act more freely together than they do currently alone,” he added.

One key option being considered by the government in its upcoming FE White Paper is taking back greater control over colleges, and in February it handed £2.7 million to 36 skills advisory panels to identify and tackle local skills gaps.

This intelligence, the EDSK says, will be useful for FE directors as they arrange provision to meet the needs of small and large employers.

A Department for Education spokesperson said EDSK’s report “outlines a range of interesting recommendations to achieve our aims”, and their White Paper will detail plans to “build a high-quality further education system”.

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  1. It shouldn’t be forgotten that many young people have aspirations beyond the industry associated with the place they live. Just because a given subject/sector is not connected with a local industrial strategy shouldn’t mean that students are prevented from studying – learner demand should be considered along with employer demand.

    • Completely agree with the comment Len makes.

      I’d add that it’s not just about young people – many older people also need and benefit from the education choices they currently have available to them. Curtailing those choices through a regional/sub-regional policy may well raise issues around access, inclusion and diversity – for providers, statutory agencies and employers alike.

  2. Phil Hatton

    Another attempt to set up a quango that requires staff with a background that would be hard to find. How many attempts at influencing the curriculum offered by colleges does it take? LEPs Mk7? Evaluating whether courses and qualifications lead to jobs is something inspectorates once did, such as the FEFC with their ‘range and responsiveness’ judgement.

  3. So, what industries should London colleges focus on? What happens to the staff delivering courses that do not fit in with this strategy? Will school Sixth forms also be included in this concept? I can only see a fall in student numbers and colleges financial situations made even more precarious as a consequence of this. Instead of constant meddling the government should provide proper funding with parity with schools at the least. Colleges do generally know their community and do generally deliver an education that young people buy into so why change?

  4. Jonathon Hobson

    I couldn’t agree more with the comment above. The age old comment there’s too many arts and media graduates….pathetic. Good I say especially if these graduates are moving around to find jobs of there’s dreams. The Creative industries has a GVA of around 111 billion in the country. Just because the industry is limited in one geographical area doesn’t mean there should be less opportunity. The world is a big place. Despite what this government would have people believe.

  5. Barney Willis

    I remember this being the proposed strategy when LEPs were first introduced. It couldn’t work then and it will not work now unless the government fund education properly. Health and Social Care, for example, is probably a key priority in nearly all LEP or mayoral areas, but with apprenticeships in Social Care at level 2&3 and Healthcare at level 2 only funded to the time of £3k with nearly 20% of that going to the EPA, it is no surprise providers are electing to step away from this or asking employers to contribute additional funds. If they do not address this at the same time skills shortage will just increase.

    • Phil Hatton

      Nail on the head Bob. Every time I see a picture of Tom Richmond on an FE Week article I know that it is something that not only will not work, but never should be allowed to work. Who on earth pays for these ideas to even be contemplated?

      If a college is churning out hundreds of learners who never get jobs with qualifications it should be picked up by Ofsted in their Quality of Education judgement under the Intent and Impact sections. Because of the time periods between inspections Ofsted could be funded to have a link college inspector who visits in the summer months to check on any changes in curriculum. It worked in the past.