Mick Fletcher is a researcher and writer on FE policy and contributes to the Policy Consortium. He is also a Director of RCU Ltd. and a Visiting Research Fellow at the UCL Institute of Education. Here he offers his views on an important aspect of localism and devolution that is rarely in the spotlight. This is based on a presentation Mick gave to a recent conference of the National Association for Managers of Student Services (NAMSS).
Devolution of skills is a game changer for all FE Colleges: they will need to develop a new relationship with local authorities and negotiate a new range of opportunities and threats.
One aspect of college work that has not featured strongly in the devolution debate until now has been the future of student services, that vital but increasingly constrained set of support functions that relate to the student as a person. Student services provide individual advice and counselling, offer financial and practical support and oversee a range of activities that contribute to social cohesion and wellbeing including action to counter the growth of violent extremism. It is important that in seeking to align colleges’ offer with the priorities of their Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and combined local authorities this vital function is not overlooked.
In developing a strategy for student services in the context of localism there are at least five areas that need to be considered.
- Careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG). Closer working between LEPs, local authorities, combined authorities and colleges provides an opportunity for better articulation of local employment needs, both in terms of the types of jobs available locally and the skills that they require. The collapse of local careers services has left a void that schools cannot fill and an opportunity for colleges to act as the key source of CIAG for young people. The challenge will be to maintain an impartial service, focused on the student rather than necessarily the aspirations of individual employers, and one that recognises students can have ambitions that take them outside their immediate locality.
- Financial Support. There is a short term risk to financial support since discretionary funds will be included in the budget to be commissioned locally and not ring-fenced. It may also be the case that demand will grow if Area Reviews lead to greater specialisation as government hopes: someone will have to support access to higher professional and technical training at Institutes of Technology or National Colleges. On the positive side, local responsibility for transport could enable local partners to support student travel (as currently in London, for example). There is also scope for increased use of local Compacts whereby employers can support access to training in skill shortage areas or, for example, agree to pay off student loans for those training in local priority areas.
- Access and Progression. A priority for local partnerships should be the development of coherent pathways between school and work or higher education with a particular focus on those with disabilities or who need extra time to succeed. While the fragmentation of the school system presents a danger it also releases local authorities from responsibilities for running schools and positions them as champions of students: in this latter role they are more natural allies of colleges.
- Social Cohesion. While the Government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda has added a new formal role in respect of social cohesion the cuts in funding for enrichment threaten to undermine activities that have made colleges a safe and neutral space for people of different backgrounds to mix naturally. Local actors are likely to have a better understanding of this than Whitehall, and while local authorities have suffered cuts they still retain responsibility for local sport and recreation services and have a strong interest in promoting cohesion. Community Education will be integrated into the new, devolved Adult Education Budget offering scope for new collaborations.
- Wellbeing. The cuts to enrichment have reduced the capacity of colleges to contribute to the wellbeing agenda through, for example promoting sport and healthy recreation. There is, however, a strong alignment of interest with local authorities which in devolved areas are likely to have an increased role at the intersection of health and social care. College capacity in areas such as counselling, and the known benefits of adult learning make FE a powerful player in this area.
Much of the discussion around the devolution of skills has to date focused on labour market information and the needs of employers. While this is undeniably important there is a need to balance it with an equal focus on the needs, aspirations and circumstances of students.