March 2016

'A new way to govern our country. Power to the people. Let the devolution revolution begin.'

So concluded George Osborne, the first Chancellor of a Conservative government to address the party faithful since Kenneth Clarke did so two decades ago. Speaking in Manchester in the summer 2015, the Chancellor placed at the centrepiece of his speech a radical devolution agenda that pledged to send powers, previously held on to in Westminster, out to every corner of the United Kingdom.

Devolution carries with it a sense of urgency - an urgency to solve the UK’s productivity puzzle across the country. As local authorities wrestle with reductions in funding, FE college leaders up and down the country are also engaged in substantial changes. Since July 2015, and the start of Area Based Reviews, the Government has been involving them and their staff in reviewing the offer that meets students when they take up further education. 

This process, which has sought to judge the size, role and viability of colleges in regions, has been led by college leaders who understand best what they offer to local communities and, most importantly, what they can offer in the coming years. College leaders, who have wrestled with funding changes for years – witnessing a 27% real-term cut in government funding to FE colleges in last 5 years - have been asked to participate in a root and branch look at what their organisation does or does not offer. 

While this process moves at different paces, in our nation’s regions, college leadership is at the forefront of this review. Our college leaders have been asked to both scrutinise and defend their own offer and to place themselves in the context of local skills concerns. In particular, they are being asked to examine the extent to which their offer represents value for money and how they can best help grow local economies.A review that is truly “warts and all”, and college leaders are taking the opportunity to lead and strengthen their relations with local employers and all stakeholders involved in local employment. 

This does not mean the Devolution agenda, and associated Area Reviews, is all about the reduction of funding. It requires a leadership that means employers and training providers form lasting and meaningful partnerships not only to fund provision, but to identify and respond to the skills gaps that need filling.

At the 157 Group, our Principals have sought to share their experiences of devolution and learn what is being asked of them together. It is clear that the exact level of control to be devolved is very much unclear. Many policy and funding mechanisms appear to lend themselves to national rather than local implementation and our Principals, by sharing their own experience, are working together to solve these conundrums themselves- rather than waiting for answers to come from London.

For our Principals, the call for local leadership is not new and is a role they continue to take on with relish. Our Principals know that colleges need to be key players in the reform around localism for their local area. 

Principals need to look at where they are in the UK and what their position is in terms of the shake down of local growth deals- working with the LEP, the Local Authority, large employers and SMEs to provide people with the skills they need so that they themselves can plug the skills gaps. Leading growth locally, contributing to economic growth nationally.

Kate Green

Director of Business Development, 157 Group

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