Greater further education and skills powers have been devolved to two mayoral regions in England – but flexibilities appear to be limited.
Eagerly sought deals for Greater Manchester and West Midlands combined authorities were unveiled today following the chancellor’s Spring Budget address, with the regions offered “deeper” devolved powers.
Currently the two have ownership of their regions’ adult education budgets (AEB) and involvement in local skills improvement plans, but the pair had been pushing for further skills and education powers such as co-commissioning powers for courses like T Levels and overseeing careers provision.
But the plans published today have only added a small number of developments, with the main flexibilities around skills bootcamps and the free courses for jobs scheme – free full level 3 courses for those without a level 3 qualification or who earn below the national living wage.
Under the trailblazer deals, the two regions will be able to spend up to half of their free courses for jobs budget on any adult level 3 qualification they feel is necessary to meet local skills need.
The government said it plans to remove the ringfencing of cash on the programme in the next spending review period (the current spending review period runs from 2022/23 to 2024/25).
On skills bootcamps, the deals say that from 2023/24 the authorities can use up to 30 per cent of their bootcamp budget on developing new bootcamps needed to meet local need, rising to 100 per cent from 2024/25.
The government plans single capital and revenue funding settlements for the trailblazers in the next spending review period, with a memorandum of understanding set to be published in January 2024 outlining more details of that. However, it is expected adult skills – including free courses for jobs and bootcamps – will be in that settlement.
Those are expected to be multi-year funding settlements.
Elsewhere, Greater Manchester and West Midlands will become the “central convenor” of careers provision in their regions, with the aim of better joining up existing careers provision such as the National Careers Service and local careers hubs by tailoring provision to local needs.
The documents say that will be carried out by the authorities with government to shape the design of those, while a new strategic fund pilot is also planned for responding to careers priorities for young people in the two areas.
Details of how much those pilots will be worth or what they will entail have not yet been made clear.
Another pilot scheme, called the Further Education Innovation Fund, will provide funding to colleges to “pursue innovation activities,” although no further details have been released on that other than the work will happen with the regions, government and Innovate UK.
Under the devolution deal, the two regions will also form their own joint governance boards bringing together commissioners, providers, and designated employer representative bodies to “provide oversight of post-16 technical education and skills”.
The report said these boards will “utilise all available levers and resources to secure a post-16 technical and vocational offer that is aligned to local skills needs”.
Only a few details of what the boards will be involved in have been published as the government says it envisages those boards will evolve over time, but details so far include involvement in linking education to real-time labour market data, developing the all-age careers strategy, signing off the local skills improvement plan from the lead college, and improved data sharing responsibilities.
According to the deals, the two regions will be subject to additional accountability that could include mayor’s question times and appearances at parliamentary select committees.
Details on what the two authorities had been pushing for had been scant as negotiations were held behind closed doors, but today’s announcement appears to fall short of some of the asks, such as requests for a partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions to influence job centre operations and co-commissioning of T Levels which Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham had been seeking.
Despite that, the Labour mayor said: “We’ve worked hard to secure this deal and have achieved a significant breakthrough by gaining greater control over post-16 technical education, setting us firmly on the path to become the UK’s first technical education city-region.”
Greater Manchester Combined Authority said that the deal was not just about powers surrounding existing programmes or funding streams, but establishes a principle that any new functions are integrated into the region’s adult skills landscape in a more responsive manner.
It added that the oversight functions will be determined as part of the interpretation and implementation of the deal and laid out in the terms of reference the authority and government will draw up together.
Andy Street, mayor of West Midlands (pictured main), added that it was a “major step forward for the West Midlands with significant new powers and funding secured”.
But skills consultant Aidan Relf on social media said that it was “a bit of a damp squib” saying that the Department for Education has “fought hard”.
Anne Dawe, chair of GM Colleges and principal at Wigan and Leigh College said the deal will build on the “excellent partnerships” already at work in Greater Manchester, adding that it would “create a highly skilled workforce with a curriculum that meets the need for the rapidly changing world of work.”
Greater Manchester elected its first directly-elected metro mayor in 2014 and has an annual AEB allocation of around £96 million. West Midlands secured its first devolution deal in November 2015, with an AEB around £130 million, according to its trailblazer document.