Broaden Your Horizon

The Department for Education’s white paper entitled Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth was recently launched.

In January 2021, the government released its long-awaited white paper on the future of the further education (FE) sector. The Department for Education’s Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth sets out a vision that ultimately aims to drive up England’s workforce skills, opportunities and productivity. In short, the paper aims to do this in a number of ways:

• putting the employer at the heart of post-16 skills
• providing the technical and higher technical skills the nation needs
• creating a flexible Lifelong Skills Guarantee
• delivering responsive providers, supported by more effective accountability and funding
• supporting outstanding teaching.

With the growth in university graduates there is a sense that FE provision is seen as the ‘cinderella’ of the education and qualification arena, with funding and strategic support not matching other qualification routes. The opportunities (and challenges) attached to Brexit, COVID-19, the levelling up agenda and a technical skills gap frame the proposals in the white paper as a pragmatic approach to both address the aspirations of the current and future workforce and meet the needs of local and national employers. The white paper firmly places employers in a central role in designing and developing qualifications and training to meet these challenges and opportunities, strengthening the links between FE providers and employers.

As employers, readers may have a passing interest in the future direction of technical qualifications. As governance professionals, the proposed changes to FE corporation governance may be of greater significance, especially if directly involved in the sector. This article will focus on those aspects of the white paper relating to employer engagement and college governance.

Lifetime Skills Guarantee

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee (LSG) announced by the Prime Minister in 2020 articulated the need for education not to stop at 18 years of age if an individual does not wish to follow an academic route. The LSG seeks to provide an opportunity for individuals to learn throughout life in order to gain meaningful employment in different industries. Technical and higher technical qualifications will be repositioned to offer a true alternative to degrees, requiring a strong focus on quality assurance and delivering on what employers need. The experience of employer-led standards developed for apprenticeships will be used to inform other FE qualifications, supported by the National Skills Fund (allocated £2.5bn), Institutes of Technology (collaborations between FE corporations, universities and leading employers) and the experience of delivering T Levels.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement will promote parity between technical and academic education and drive provision to be more innovative, promoting modular learning and flexibility over time. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement scheme also aims to help individuals pay for higher technical level qualifications to support job and career progression in those industries requiring a higher technical level of knowledge and competence.

It is hoped these initiatives will reverse the decline in adult learners, which has dropped from 3.1m to 2.1m between 2011 and 2019. An early project has seen £8m spent on boosting digital skills (September 2020 – March 2021) via ‘bootcamps’ in six pilot areas. This was projected to be followed by similar activity aimed at supporting the nuclear industry from January 2021.

Local Skills and Improvement Plans

A central tenet of the vision to better connect further education and training to the needs of employers is the creation of Local Skills and Improvement Plans (LSIPs) and College Business Centres. LSIPs will bring together employers, FE colleges, other providers and local stakeholders to set out key changes to qualification provision to make technical skills more responsive to the needs of employers.

The paper claims that FE providers find it difficult to identify local skills gaps, which they could then position themselves to meet in an effective manner. This in turn can impact on the success of joint working and partnerships with local employers and other stakeholders. The Association of Colleges’ 2020 Innovation Survey showed that many colleges already engage with employers but require greater investment to overcome barriers to better engagement and delivery, such as the provision of technical equipment to underpin practical training and skills and more support and time dedicated to offer meaningful engagement with employers. The idea of the LSIP appears to draw on arrangements in Germany and the Netherlands where there is sustained and effective engagement between employers and educational providers to co-design and co-deliver technical training and development.

Initially, LSIPs will be created for a period of three years, with a commitment to have them reviewed and updated regularly. Pilot LSIPs in ‘Trailblazer’ localities will be led by accredited Chambers of Commerce (or other membership organisations supporting business) to build effective models of employer representation before a wider roll out. The pilot regions are set to be announced in early 2021. It is expected the trailblazer schemes will work on and with existing Mayoral Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships at a local level, but also inform a new Skills and Productivity Board (chaired by the CEO of Sky UK and Europe, Stephen van Rooyen) which will advise government on skills gaps in the labour market.

LSIPs will be supported by a dedicated Strategic Development Fund to offer capital and revenue funding which can be used to update facilities, establish College Business Centres and encourage the provision of new qualifications and training where it would be hard for a single college to act alone. Pathfinder College Business Centres will work with employers in a designated sector on business development and innovation to focus on local priorities to support businesses in increasing innovation and productivity.

Given previous and current attempts at multi-party collaboration within key sectors and engaging different stakeholders (think of Local Strategic Partnerships and the NHS’ move towards Integrated Care Systems), the LSIPs have a number of governance practices and models to draw upon, but the governance challenges presented by LSIPs will not be easily overcome without clear lines of responsibility and accountability for each party.

New Powers

The white paper proposes giving the Secretary of State new powers to intervene quickly and decisively in FE corporations where there are persistent problems, but these powers should only be used ‘as a last resort’. The powers proposed include changing the membership and composition of governing bodies and leadership, and closing and setting up corporations. These are just one facet of a range of measures to improve FE college governance, financial management, accountability and oversight and can be linked to examples of poor governance and financial oversight reported in the sector press and investigated by the FE Commissioner.

Strengthening Governance

The FE sector will be given a new core purpose to give people the technical skills they need to get good jobs, boost productivity and develop or progress skill acquisition and development. This will require both good teaching and robust governance.

As with academy trusts, the DfE's commitment to improving governance focuses not just on boards, but the governance professional too. The report states that: “The most effective colleges already have high-quality governance in place and have become role models…” (page 54) and that those leaders with high potential will be supported to progress via an ‘end to end’ programme for FE leadership and governance.

Chapter four of the white paper covers ‘responsive providers, supported by more effective accountability and funding’ and this is where the governance proposals are found. The chapter proposes work to ‘level up’ governance standards across the sector building on the Ney Review’s recommendations to create higher expectations of governance through clearer requirements, reviews and training. A commitment to consult on governance proposals is tabled for spring 2021 which includes:

• setting out clearer expectations of what the government thinks good governance and leadership looks like, including governing body composition, recruitment, retention and development
• updating the department’s guidance on recruiting senior leaders within colleges, including detailing ‘good leadership’ and the proposal to include one independent person on interview panels for
college leaders
• a requirement for annual self-assessments by governing bodies, with a regular external governance review
• the development of a competency framework for governors and the governance professional
• working with the Charity Commission for England and Wales to establish a way in which governing body chairs can be paid in specific circumstances.

There is also a wider commitment to improve the diversity of college governing bodies to include looking at the skills required for the role of governor, opportunities to encourage those from other sectors and industries to become governors and how to further train and develop governors to support and lead colleges.

As FE corporations are established as exempt charities, the proposals and consultation will address those areas where there may appear to be conflict or contradiction to ensure the way forward is clear and consistent. The DfE has committed to working with key sector representative bodies to make sure the governance arrangements are as strong as they need to be to meet the sector’s new vision and challenges and the Institute welcomes the opportunity to discuss governance developments with the DfE at an early stage.

Autonomy and Accountability

In addition to the specific governance proposals, the intention is to move funding away from single-year streams to an arrangement that is better suited to meet the challenges of high-quality technical provision that meets the needs of local and national employers. These proposals will be subject to consultation in the coming months.

The document suggests that existing FE providers are not sufficiently incentivised to offer high value training and education, especially as existing funding arrangements make it difficult for providers to respond to needs flexibly and responsively because of the short-term funding model.

The white paper states that funding will be simpler with a view to removing ring fencing and reporting requirements, and the government hopes to introduce multi-year funding to better meet the strategic needs of the local workforce and employers. As such, monitoring will focus more on outcomes for learners, employers and taxpayers (such as improved local employment rates) and value for money rather than processes.

New performance measures will mean FE corporations will be held to account on the broader themes of employer engagement (including the work and effectiveness of LSIPs), the quality of the education and training provision delivered and outcomes (both local and national). Furthermore, there will be annual strategic conversations between the Department and colleges to discuss organisational objectives, risks, opportunities, good practice and plans. It is hoped that changing funding and accounting approaches will improve delivery mechanisms for students and provide the skilled workforces employers seek.

Future Legislation

While many of the proposals introduced in the white paper will be subject to public consultation, the government has committed to introducing legislation to put its many plans on a strong legal footing. The Institute will be attuned to these developments and will seek the input of members to add our voice to making sure the future of FE governance is as effective, proportionate and robust as it needs to be for the education community and wider society.

The full document can be read here.

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