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Devolution and colleges - great expectations or hard times?

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PA Consulting Group, working with the CollabGroup of Colleges and PublicCo, believes that the combination of devolution and change in Further Education Colleges offers the promise of great expectations, with the risk that getting it wrong could lead to hard times.

The Further Education (FE) sector is critical to the Government strategy of raising productivity and generating economic growth. PA Consulting Group has been working with PublicCo to support leaders in FE Colleges to undertake ‘design led change’ in response to the challenges posed by Area Reviews  and take advantage of the opportunities they create. CollabGroup represents 36 of the leading FE Colleges from across the UK, and working with them presents an ideal opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities in the sector.

The government is promoting greater devolution as a solution to system fragmentation… 

A recurring theme through the many recent reviews and opinion papers on the FE and skills system across the UK is ‘fragmentation’. This is apparent in the differences between the workforce needs of employers and the education and training available to meet them; in the structures and quality of the vocational opportunities provided to young people and working adults; and in the complexities of funding and policy regimes and different modes of provision across the UK. Can the government’s ambitious programme of devolution offer solutions to these mismatches, by creating new structures for addressing them in more manageable local contexts? 

… but experience of devolution varies across the UK

Experiences from our partner CollabGroup suggests that the operation of devolved responsibilities for employment and skills varies enormously across the cities and regions of the UK. There are some common strands to college experiences which suggest that the promises of devolution may prove hard to realise. In those areas where devolution is relatively well advanced – notably in Greater Manchester and in Scotland – college heads report that new relationships are being built and convergent local skills plans are falling into place. In other areas, political turf wars between counties, towns and agencies can gridlock progress. 

Area Reviews 

The national programme of Area Based Reviews across England might have been expected to strengthen the relationships between colleges, policy makers and employers across localities. However, in practice, the Area Reviews are viewed by many across the FE sector as having impeded moves to better local engagement. The ABRs  have worked across different local boundaries to LEPs or combined authorities, and have focused on the efficiency and viability of college providers rather than on wider strategic provision. Recommendations for college mergers, with limited acknowledgement of the potential for developing wider interfaces with local schools/academy trusts, providers and others, have potentially distracted attention from more innovative strategic possibilities such as local learning federations.

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Colleges as orchestrators?
The challenge at the heart of the devolution agenda is to establish and build on far better connections between the functions and players in the local skills and employment system. Such connections are needed on multiple and interdependent levels: in forward-looking articulation of the workforce capabilities needed within city-regions or other localities; in the development and delivery of educational and training provision designed to meet those needs; in the provision of learning and development pathways that enable young people and adults to grow and accumulate their skills and employability credentials; and in closing the loop between upskilled individuals and fulfilment of workforce needs. 

National and sector-based skills strategies, and local reflections of them (for example in LEP plans) all highlight the gaps in these connections. Whilst there are numerous spot solutions to specific instances of these skills gaps, often involving colleges, there is no systemic response to this problem. This opens a rich opportunity for innovative and enterprising colleges to step up as key players within more collaborative and joined-up local skills and employment ecosystems. The diagram below illustrates the scope of such ecosystems, and the possibilities for college-led collaborations within them.

The challenge is that the joined-up local eco-system envisaged here is in practice fragmented among multiple separate, loosely-coupled players, with no overall oversight or responsibility for its effectiveness or well-being. LEPs and Combined Authorities have relevant policy responsibilities but lack the means to deliver them; employers have deep interests in the performance of the system but regard themselves more as its customers than as co-producers; while colleges and other providers, as we have seen, often feel themselves more the recipients of the system than leaders of it.

There is a huge and important opportunity here for colleges, working together and in partnership with other players, to operate as the fulfilment agents for LEPs, combined authorities and sector groups.  Some are already starting to do this, like in Birmingham as part of the Midlands Engine strategy, and in Manchester in partnership with NHS and community care providers. The role requires colleges to think and act beyond their limitations as providers of prescribed courses and programmes, stepping up to bridge the connections between employers, providers, individuals and agencies, and to orchestrate their engagement in collaborations and shared solutions to shared needs.

Examples of this role include colleges convening local skills and employment alliances, often under the auspices of an LEP or combined authority, collating and sharing information across local technical collaborative and professional education (TPE) networks and setting up online skills and employment brokerage services to help match individuals to opportunities within their localities.  The position of colleges, with their existing relationships with employers, local agencies and other learning providers, and their capabilities in understanding how to translate employment needs into learning provision, makes them uniquely qualified for this role.  Whilst the capacity and capabilities of many colleges to take on this pivotal role may be beyond the means of many at present, if harnessed, this would change the way skills are delivered across the country. As such, PA Consulting Group, PublicCo and CollabGroup are working together with progressive leaders in FE to harness this idea and ensure that Colleges are fit for the future, enabling them to make the positive contribution to learning and work that is essential for future learners.


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