The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a report expressing serious concerns about the future of further education in England.
The report says that the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) aren’t doing enough to help colleges address risks at an early stage. The Government needs to be more proactive and the FE Commissioner – whose advice seems to be positive and well-received - needs more resources to intervene when colleges are struggling.
In general, the arrangements for oversight and intervention are unnecessarily complex and lack clarity on who is responsible for intervening and in what circumstances. It’s also not clear why there are separate funding agencies for learners of different ages.
The various bodies responsible for funding and oversight have taken decisions without understanding their cumulative impact on the colleges.
The PAC is equally damning of the post-16 Area Reviews currently underway. BIS appears to see these as a “fix-all solution” to current problems, but the report describes them as “limited in scope” and “having the potential to be haphazard”, particularly as they don’t cover all types of provider.
Given the important role of this sector for both learners and local economies, Meg Hillier MP, the PAC Chair, describes its assessment as “deeply worrying” and “both frustrating and sad”.
In recent months we have seen highly critical analysis of government policy in this area by the DfE’s favourite adviser Professor Alison Wolf and by the Policy Exchange think-tank. Both believe that funding currently going into higher education should be redirected to high-level professional and technical provision in FE colleges.
The FE sector has some powerful champions – we can only hope that Government starts to listen to them.