Unlocking the potential for English skills devolution
At a time of increasing uncertainty, understanding the experience of the devolved nations will be key to unlocking the potential for English skills devolution.
The devolution agenda will play a significant part in determining the future shape of the FE sector. The change is already underway, as demonstrated by devolution deals in places like Greater Manchester, Sheffield and the West Midlands; all these deals contain provision for—amongst other measures—the devolution of the adult skills budget, which will soon be controlled by directly elected Mayors. These developments are occurring concurrently with reductions in funding from central government and its associated agencies.
The implications of these changes are profound: English colleges will be increasingly dependent on their local networks, and on local government, for the delivery and funding of provision. For some English colleges there has not been a strong impetus to be locally connected as they have historically relied on assured budgets from national government. English colleges cannot be faulted for this, but the climate is now changing and this will require a complete reassessment of where and who they connect with.
In this emerging landscape, there are many lessons that can be learnt by English colleges form the experiences of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There are certainly important differences, but there are key areas where the devolved nations do seem to have emerged in a stronger position over the last number of years, largely because of their devolved frameworks.
Firstly, all three devolved nations have significantly cut the number of colleges through mergers. Since 2005, the number of colleges in Northern Ireland have been rationalised from 16 down to 6. This has cut costs and made the sector more focussed. It also has meant that collaboration has become easier with more opportunities to coordinate activity. With smaller numbers, a more local focus with local government also becomes easier as we are included in the regional economic strategy; in turn, we are recognised as part of city solutions for economic success. Town and Gown stretches very definitely to include FE colleges.
Recognising the Skills Agenda
In all the devolved nations, there is a much stronger regional economic agenda and skills features prominently in these. While we don’t all have skills strategies, all the devolved nations recognise the important piece that the skills agenda plays in wider conversations around economic growth and productivity. This has been an opportunity for colleges to situate themselves at the heart of economic success and not just in the educational debate. It has made it easier to be aligned with CBI/IOD/Chambers and to be regarded as legitimate actors in regional economic networks.
These adjustments require colleges to be much more outward looking and engaged with employers, politicians and local communities. While Ofsted equivalents in devolved nations are important it is not the most important issue – sure, we want quality but we are also much more part of the discourse on how to make economies work and that goes way beyond focussing on teaching and learning in the classroom.
The national and political contexts within which these developments have taken place are certainly unique and there will no doubt be challenges ahead. But the underlying principles of developing a more externally focused sector which is aligned to wider economic priorities will no doubt be increasingly important for all colleges in the years ahead. Marie-Therese is a Member of the Collab Group Board and Principal and Chief Executive of Belfast Metropolitan College.
This article first appeared in TES on 20 January 2017.