Is devolution the route to integrating adult skills with other public services?
The Apprenticeship Levy isn’t the only major reform happening in the skills sector, and while everybody has been preoccupied with the seismic changes caused by the Levy, the movement towards devolution has quietly been creating a massive opportunity to do things better. The Adult Education Budget will be passed to Combined Authorities via devolution deals as a single block grant, with services being commissioned locally starting in 2017/18. This allows for skills support to be weaved through multiple public services at a local level. This fundamentally changes the way in which skills for adults will be delivered, and creates a real opportunity for greater integration.
There are some reasons to be optimistic of the impact devolution of adult skills:
First, the Adult Education Budget funding was protected in cash terms until 2020 as of the Spending Review 2015. This means that there will be at least £1.5 billion per year funding to support adults with low skills nationally. The support offered under the Adult Education Budget includes English & maths, ESOL and Level 2 (which is the equivalent to achieving 5 GCSEs at grade C or above) - with opportunities for traineeships and Level 3 qualifications to be part-funded. These are the kinds of skills that enable access to the labour market and promote progression. Whilst this does mean a reduction in real terms, this is still a substantial amount of funding that will support people enter, sustain and progress in work.
Secondly, the statutory requirements to deliver adult skills encourage integration. This has meant some changes to the definitions of eligible groups - for example, the definition of unemployment in the context of the Adult Education Budget is now the same as in the Department for Work & Pensions - making it easier for adult skills provision to align with other centrally commissioned public services such as the Work & Health Programme. In addition, these statutory requirements are being passed from Central Government to Combined Authorities along with the funding in the devolution deals. This ensures that these services will continue to exist, and, where devolution deals allow, makes it easier for Combined Authorities to build adult skills provision into other public services at the commissioning stage.
Third, the recent change in which the Department for Education absorbed the central government responsibility for adult skills transforms the Department for Education into a department for lifelong learning. This is extremely positive as it enables more streamlined policy for education between early years, 16-19 and into adulthood. This should help to close the gaps caused by the transition from 16-19 provision into adult skills.
As with any major change however, uncertainty is never far away. There are a few factors that are making adult skills devolution a changing landscape:
The first of these is the changing personnel at a central and local level. In Central Government, the Prime Minister’s new Cabinet means that there are new people with new priorities right across Government, among whom few will have been directly involved in negotiating the first round of devolution deals. This is a challenge that could be exacerbated in 2017 by the election of the Metro Mayors in areas with an existing devolution deal wanting to return to the negotiating table. This may simply slow down the devolution process while everybody gets up to speed and agrees the way forward.
The second cause for uncertainty is the impact of the changes to the machinery of Government. With the transfer of the skills brief from BIS to the Department for Education but one of many changes across the Government Departments in Whitehall, many policy initiatives are being held up as the Civil Services undergoes massive structural change. These changes are like a corporate restructure on a much grander scale, people moving from one Department to another, changes to IT systems and HR changes create an enormous distraction that simply has to be worked through.
Finally, it is unclear as to how the Adult Education Budget will operate in areas where there aren’t devolution deals in place. This creates two significant causes for uncertainty. First, is that there is a lack of clarity as to how much of the £1.5billion Adult Education Budget will be allocated to each of these areas. Secondly, it makes it unclear as to how adult skills provision can be effectively integrated with other public services. Current guidance states that in areas where there aren’t devolution deals in place, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local Authorities and the provider network are key stakeholders to influence the mix and balance of provision - but it is unclear as to what this means in practice.
What is clear, is that the devolution of adult skills creates substantial opportunities to improve public services, but, the lack of certainty in key areas risks undermining the ability to realise these opportunities.
Executive Director, ThinkWinDo