What to expect under plans for adult education devolution across England

Adult education budgets and skills improvement plan involvement are among powers to transfer to local areas

Adult education budgets and skills improvement plan involvement are among powers to transfer to local areas

More devolution deals are set to be signed off by the end of the year as the government ploughs ahead with plans to give every area of the country control of its adult education budget (AEB). FE Week takes stock of what progress has been made to date and what to expect in the coming weeks and months. 

In February, the government published the Levelling Up white paper, which outlined a number of fresh devolution proposals. 

It included “trailblazer” deals for further devolution at two existing mayoral combined authorities, a new deal for York and North Yorkshire, an expanded deal in the north east, and nine “county deal” devolution arrangements. 

Most, if not all, are likely to include devolution of the AEB, involvement in local skills improvement plans, and for the two trailblazer areas greater powers over skills provision. 

Trailblazers chosen for greater skills devolution 

Ten areas of England, including Greater London, have mayoral combined authorities (MCAs), which have control over their AEB. 

Of the current MCA areas with devolved AEB, Greater Manchester and West Midlands have been selected by the government to be the trailblazers for further devolution. 

Negotiations for those are ongoing and have not been made public, but a few details have been hinted at around which powers authorities would like to take on. 

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, told a Royal Society for Arts (RSA) event on local and regional economies over the summer that skills and technical education is “the biggest missing piece and the single most important ask we will make as part of this trailblazer process”. 

The authority said it wants a “clearer” role in the wider skills system, with “full devolution of some components and co-commissioning of others”. 

It also wants a new role in influencing technical and professional education for 16- to 19-year-olds so that it meets local labour market needs. 

Greater Manchester is making three asks as part of the negotiations: local control of post-19 skills and work-based learning, a partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in order to have more influence in how job centres operate, and a tie-up with the Department for Education on 16 to 19 education to co-commission courses such as T Levels. 

Further details on those asks have not been disclosed. 

“At the moment we are dealing too much in work-arounds and retrofits such as our matchmaking service for the apprenticeship levy,” Burnham told the RSA event. “With more control over post-16 technical education, we could build a more responsive local skills system which would be a significant boost to investment and growth.” 

West Midlands has provided fewer details, but the authority said it wants more integration between skills training and employment. 

“This would include greater influence over post-16 technical and vocational education and over careers, as well as joint working with DWP in shaping employment support,” a spokesperson said. 

A timeline for trailblazer announcements has not been laid out but further details are expected in the coming months. 

County deals get off the mark 

Elsewhere, the government has confirmed the north east would be invited to expand its existing deal, while York and North Yorkshire’s deal for a mayoral combined authority would be finalised. In addition, nine areas of England were invited to begin negotiations for “county deals”.  

Those county deals are based on three levels of devolution. Level one has the lowest level of powers, with local authorities working together in a committee. Level two has a county council without a directly elected mayor but more powers than level one, while level three includes a directly elected mayor with the most powers available. 

Government guidance indicates that level two and three deals include a devolved AEB, as well as input into local skills improvement plans (LSIPs). 

Negotiations are taking place behind closed doors so the details for each potential deal have not been made public, but political leaders appear to be largely pursuing level two or three options. 

York and North Yorkshire’s deal was announced on August 1, Yorkshire Day. Under the deal, £540 million will be distributed to the new mayoral combined authority over the next 30 years. 

It is not yet clear how much its annual AEB will be, but the report for the agreement said it would be fully devolved in time for 2025/26. 

On August 30, the first county deal for the East Midlands was announced, covering Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire (see main image).

It will form the first mayoral combined county authority (MCCA), with the aim of holding a mayoral election in May 2024. 

The East Midlands deal involves an estimated £1.14 billion over the next three decades and a fully devolved AEB in time for 2025/26. 

The ongoing north east negotiations are expected to centre around expanding the North of Tyne Combined Authority area to include areas south of the river; South Tyneside, Gateshead and Sunderland, as well as Durham which is among the county deal areas. 

The county deal areas currently being negotiated are Cornwall; Devon, Plymouth and Torbay; Durham; Hull and East Yorkshire; Leicestershire; Norfolk; and Suffolk. 

The government said it wanted to have the county deals wrapped up this autumn, but it looks like that will now be achieved by the end of the year. It is expected that negotiations will then begin for other areas of the country. 

What devolution means for adult education 

The upshot is that the AEB will increasingly be farmed out to local devolved areas, with the goal of eventually having a “devolved system across all of England”. 

In addition, the government expects all areas with devolved AEBs to be involved in the employer-led LSIPs – key documents which outline priorities and changes in that area to make post-16 education more responsive to the needs of the local labour market over the following three years. 

It pledged that “by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement”. 

The annual AEB pot stands at about £1.5billion, with the government first starting to devolve the AEB in August 2019. 

Roughly 60 per cent of the AEB – about £786 million – is devolved to the existing MCAs, but the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) estimates that will reach about 80 per cent, or up to £1.2 billion, with the new and likely devolution deals outlined in the Levelling Up white paper. 

Jane Hickie, the chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said the organisation supports devolution of the AEB as long as the commissioning by each area is fair, open and transparent, but stressed that  programmes such as apprenticeships and traineeships should continue to be commissioned nationally by central government. 

“As devolution is rolled out across the country, this presents both opportunities and risks to providers,” Hickie said. 

“On one hand there are now many more commissioning opportunities to engage with. However, a diverse approach to commissioning results in significantly more work and bureaucracy for providers. There needs to be a balanced approach which takes these issues into account and focuses on getting funding to the front-line adult learners.” 

Holex, the professional body for adult and community learning, said most providers were happy that combined authorities were doing the right thing for learners but cautioned that they must not forget about lower-level qualifications. 

Sue Pember, the director of policy and external relations at Holex added: “We would like to see that the ‘deal’ makes it clear that from day one CAs are there to serve all the residents of the area, and not just those ready for level 3 and above. There needs to be a social inclusion dimension to the work and wider benefits of learning need to be recognised.” 

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  1. Richard Heath

    Has anyone considered the ‘border issues’ that already exist and will be hugely exacerbated by further devolution if mitigations are not made? I work for a shire county provider that neighbours an MCA and other proposed devolved areas. As the MCA declined to offer us a contract we find ourselves in the bizarre position that we are funded to work with learners on the other side of the country but not the other side of the motorway. This has to be addressed – and in a way that does not require providers to deal with multiple different contracts, rules and reporting requirements.