Governance and accountability in a changing world

Governance and accountability in a changing world

23rd July 2018

Changing lines of accountability raise questions about governance in further education and skills, writes Ewart Keep

One of the issues that is very striking when looking at English FE is the growing disconnect between traditional models of college governance and accountability, and reality out on the ground. The traditional, post-incorporation assumption was that each college was accountable to its local community via outreach to local stakeholders and through college management being held to account by the board of governors. The modern-day reality is that the main line of accountability is actually to national government, with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and Ofsted acting as high-stakes enforcers of government-set priorities and models of learning, and the FE Commissioner providing an emergency support service for some of those institutions that are judged to be in trouble.

As with most other forms of education provision, the national interest and ministerial perceptions thereof trumps local views, and indeed at national level there are no formal mechanisms to give voice to other stakeholder views when FE policy is being formulated.  It is also the case that the ESFA is not an intermediary body.  It is there to transmit downward and enforce government priorities via a bureaucratic formula funding regime. There is no feedback mechanism in the opposite direction (bottom up), and the ESFA does not mediate between government and colleges.

Besides the fact that national interests and policies often drown out local thinking and priorities, the concept that a college reports back to its local community is under increasing threat from mergers and the growth of multi-college confederations – a development given added impetus by the Area Based Reviews (ABRs). Although large, multi-locality college groupings are still relatively rare they are growing, and are being supplemented by colleges diversifying into other modes of provision via the creation of UTCs and free schools. Multiple location and multiple form of provision models may, as a result, be weakening the bonds between the individual college and its local stakeholders. This is not a problem for central government, as they are the spider sitting at the centre of a web of national accountability that reaches every college and college sub-unit. It may be a problem for localities and for colleges that span different localities.

The devolution of the Adult Education Budget to Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) means that, for colleges operating in, or contracted to cater to demand within an MCA, the future holds the prospect of being accountable to both national and local government. Again, it is clear that the Department for Education and MCAs have very different priorities, and it will be interesting to see how MCAs evolve accountability mechanisms that support their strategies for the AEB.  How involved FE will be in designing these arrangements is an open question.

Finally, the Labour Party in its last general election manifesto promised the creation of a National Education Service (NES) that would in some way mirror the National Health Service, and which would re-introduce an element of ‘democratic accountability’ at local level. Remarkably little attention seems yet to have been paid to this commitment (perhaps because no details of how it might be structured, funded and operated have yet been forthcoming). However, thinking is probably required within FE, because it raises a set of issues about how colleges would react to a change in the current accountability settlement. In conducting earlier research for FETL on the devolution of the AEB, and during the work on the marketisation of FE, it was very clear that there is a fundamental divergence of opinion between colleges about the best way forward. Some institutions and their senior management team have learned to duck, dive and thrive in the marketplace, and enjoy the idea that within the confines set by the government’s accountability regime, they are free agents, able to do as they please and engage in whatever lines of business they believe will serve their community and the college’s best interests. The judgement about college priorities is, at least in part, theirs to make within a nationally determined policy context. Other colleges are less enamoured of these ‘freedoms’ and the financial instability that often goes with transient funding streams and an ever-shifting quasi-market for public resources. They might be willing to trade a measure of independence for greater stability, and to find new ways develop local accountability mechanisms. Finding a settlement that suits these different stances (and all shades of opinion in between) will not be easy, and there would be sense in FE talking to the Labour Party sooner rather than later about this issue.

Ewart Keep is Chair in Education, Training and Skills and Director of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) at the UNIVERSITY of Oxford. His new report for the Association of Colleges, supported by FETL, is available here. You can register for FETL’s webinar with Ewart Keep here

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