NIACE initial response to Heseltine Review

31 October 2012

NIACE welcomes Lord Heseltine’s review – No stone unturned in pursuit of growth – as a powerful argument for a new approach to stimulating economic growth and for a rebalancing of responsibilities between local and central government in England. The review recognises that education and skills are “the foundation for growth and prosperity” – a statement with which NIACE agrees wholeheartedly.

There is much in the review to be supported, in particular a dynamic vision for localism and cross government thinking which echoes NIACE’s analysis showing that learning for adults crosses many departments and agendas. But, NIACE is not yet convinced that the recommendations will necessarily result in a further education (FE) system which better meets the diverse needs of adult learners.

In terms of how adult education and training is financed, Lord Heseltine proposes the creation of a ‘single funding pot’ including the adult skills budget, community learning, offender learning, apprenticeships and more from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, combined with other budgets from across Whitehall including Communities and Local Government, Transport, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Programme. Local Enterprise Partnerships would be able to bid for these funds.

Although the review is very clear in its direction and focus, and gives indications of statutory entitlements for English and maths for adults, there are many unanswered questions about the extent to which budgets would be ring-fenced or safeguarded, or whether funds could be put to different uses to meet the local priorities set by unaccountable groups of business leaders. This suggests that some localities might simply opt out of particular forms of education and training, especially for groups outside of, or at some distance from, the labour market.

Mark Ravenhall, NIACE’s Director of Policy and Impact, said:

“No one feels skills mismatches more heavily than the thousands of people unable to access adult learning due to narrow funding rules. We feel government should take a long-term view on skills as Lord Leitch suggested in his vision of 2020. Whatever system is chosen should be followed through with the full commitment of all agencies – including the Department for Work and Pensions – and the temptation to chop and change unnecessarily should be resisted.”

“Despite some salient weaknesses, there is much to be commended in the current system, particularly more recently with some flexing of funding rules. We hope this to continue with learning providers given more freedom to plan and show accountability to their communities. This was the vision put forward by Baroness Sharp of Guildford in her independent commission of an Inquiry into Colleges last year.”

“It is interesting that Lord Heseltine’s vision for decentralisation of funding stops short of including schools, which some observers have argued have become more centrally managed under the current administration. Any vision for growth needs to consider both the ‘stock’ of current adults and the ‘flow’ of those leaving the schools system.”

Lord Heseltine’s clear focus on growth bleaches out the other purposes of the further education sector, identified by his fellow Conservative peer Lord Lingfield, whose recent report into professionalism in the sector identified five different forms of FE:

  • The remedial dimension, redressing the shortcomings of schooling.
  • The community dimension, offering lifelong learning opportunities to local people with benefits to their health, longevity and wellbeing as well as continuing education.
  • Vocational FE teaching occupational skills.
  • Academic courses up to Level 3.
  • Higher education studies.

NIACE believes that in addition to protecting the amount of public money going into FE, the breadth of its offer should be maintained.

The Government, which commissioned Lord Heseltine’s review, has yet to make a detailed response – not least because the proposals are so wide-reaching. NIACE urges supporters of adult learning to read Lord Heseltine’s review and share their reactions to the opportunities as well as the threats it presents.