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FE colleges must collaborate, and not just with each other

Stop, collaborate and listen by allaboutgeorge on Flickr

Stop, collaborate and listen by allaboutgeorge on Flickr

Phil Swann, Si Managing Director writes

One of the interesting features of the current debate about devolution and combined authorities is the interlinking of action to enable economic growth with the next phase of public service reform in the face of continued reductions in public expenditure. This is particularly pressing in relation to education and training.

The skills challenge is high up the list of priorities in every strategic economic plan and local growth deal: up-skilling the existing workforce, tackling the continuing unacceptable levels of young people with no qualifications, and meeting the specific skills needs of local employers.

A lot of attention has been paid to the case for devolving responsibility for allocating skills funding to a local level. That remains an important goal, but there is an equally important task to be done in ensuring that best use is made of the education and training provision that exists locally and getting maximum benefit from any additional investment.

I am currently working in a city in which significant new investment is being planned in both higher and further education, with little or no thought being given to, for example, the dual use of facilities. In the same area there is a lot of talk about creating centres of excellence across the FE sector in the area to meet the needs of local employers; but there has been very little action. And I know that city is by no means unique.

The current funding mechanisms are based on the premise of competition between providers, making collaboration fearsomely difficult.

It seems to me that there needs to be a shock to the system to break through this inertia. Maybe the Skills Funding Agency has just provided that shock in its announcement of significant cuts in FE and skills funding from the start of the coming academic year – cuts of as much as 24% in non-apprenticeship adult skills budgets.

Cuts of that scale will put the viability of some institutions at risk, making the case for collaboration stronger than ever and more difficult to resist.

I know that some senior civil servants are encouraging LEPs to take the initiative and review FE provision across their area. And it is significant that one of the strands in the recent Greater Manchester devolution deal was to give the combined authority the power to re-shape and restructure FE in the area.

It is important, however, that any LEPs which do decide to grasp this nettle do not confine their attention to FE. The real prize lies in a more integrated approach embracing both FE colleges, and Universities, and schools too.

This matches the extent of integration now being envisaged in health and social care. And, if we are being honest, the potential prize is just as big, as are the financial pressures.

This is an area in which it should be possible to get better for less. We owe it to today’s learners and employers to face up to this. But it will not be easy.

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