Paul Stanistreet writes for the TSNLA on the challenges of skills devolution

In January, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) published guidance on changes to the adult education budget, including the absorption of the previously ring-fenced community learning budget, trailed by skills minister Nick Boles in December's funding letter. The government plans to transfer control of the budget to local government areas through devolution agreements, enabling 'local areas and colleges and other training organisations to reshape their local adult education provision' to 'tackle the economic priorities and productivity challenges a high-performing skills system should meet'. Transition towards devolution begins in 2016-17, with full-blooded devolution starting in 2018-19.


Understandably, providers will have concerns about these changes, not least in the third sector, whose contribution to this agenda has not always been properly recognised. This is in part due to decision-makers' lack of familiarity with this bit of the territory. But it is also due to the voluntary sector's own failure always to communicate its value adequately or in the right places. Of course, there are dangers inherent in the devolution process, not least that third-sector providers' contribution to employment and employability, particularly for those furthest from the labour market, will not be adequately appreciated or that learners whose employability needs cannot be addressed straightforwardly through a narrow focus on training for employment will lose out, a particular concern when local resources are tight and provider capacity already under considerable strain. Nevertheless, we need also to see this as an opportunity to make ourselves better and more widely understood.


The trend towards devolution in adult education and skills is, therefore, something we should welcome, albeit cautiously, recognising that, done well, it represents a real opportunity to better join up education, learning, employment and skills. Localism promises, among other things, a better matching of skills provision to jobs, a more inclusive approach to local economic growth, and a better, more coherent and less wasteful use of existing budgets, reducing duplication and ensuring resources go where they are most needed. That, at least, is the theory. The devil, as ever, will be in the detail, not least of how comprehensively and inclusively the agenda will be delivered.


Inclusivity, so often the test of whether a policy works or is buried under the weight of unintended negative consequences, is critical, and here there are some areas of concern. These include the government's programme of area reviews, another good idea, in principle at least, which takes too a partial and piecemeal an approach, excluding many stakeholders from the table in a process which seems more to do with saving money than with genuinely reviewing the capacity of local providers to deliver what local areas need. This is apparent in the failure of the review guidelines to as much as mention community learning, so often the key to getting disadvantaged or hard-to-reach learners back on the road to employment and a fulfilling life. Instead, the reviews focus narrowly on apprenticeships and vocational education, overlooking the fact that, very often, those furthest from employment need a holistic, individualized approach in an environment they know and trust.


The uneven development of Local Enterprise Partnerships is also a concern, with providers reporting varying levels of success in working with them. The role of LEPs is increasingly unclear but they remain important players. Alongside the area reviews, they are among the key drivers of a localism agenda to which voluntary and community sector providers have much to contribute. It is in the voluntary and community sector, after all, that adults who lack the confidence or motivation to enter more formal learning can re-engage with learning via less formal routes - surely a key dimension of any coherent policy for inclusive growth. Too often, however, the sector's voice is marginalised, as providers struggle to find ways to engage effectively.


There are many unresolved issues, not least the role local commissioners, perhaps the key figures in the emerging learning and skills funding environment, will play in a funding environment in which sub-contracting is increasingly rare. We need to know how local commissioners will operate and match provision to local need without tying up the system with more unnecessary red tape or over-complex procurement arrangements. Changes to EU procurement law could require independent training providers, who aren't grant funded, to compete for SFA contracts, which, previously have been renewed as a matter of course, from 2017-18, creating another level of uncertainty for providers. Some have raised concerns that the level of investment required to fund courses may not be fully understood by commissioners. One thing is clear, however. Voluntary and community sector organisations are going to have to communicate clearly to local commissioners what they can contribute in a way that reflects not only their own priorities but also an understanding of wider learning and skills needs and how they fit in.


This is an important debate and TSNLA is keen to contribute to it. We want devolution to work, for the sector, for the learners, for employers and for the wider economy and society. But, of course, we can only do so much. Politicians set tone: they create the framework and they help decide who gets a seat at which table. Recognition is important, as is a willingness to take an inclusive, holistic approach to learning and skills provision. There are some encouraging signs, including a willingness among ministers and officials to listen. We need to build on the constructive dialogue we have initiated with BIS and the SFA. The future, like devolution itself, will be very much what we make it.


We are at the start of a journey; a tricky one, perhaps, but also one which also holds out much promise. TSNLA is here to help and to ensure your voice is heard and that the contribution of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector is not overlooked, nationally or locally. We want a continuing conversation with our members. Let us know what you think by emailing john.harris@tsnla.org.uk.

Paul Stanistreet - on behalf of the TSNLA