Tough Choices Are the Key to Area Based Reviews

The Area Based Reviews (ABR) process raises (once again) the question of how best to align training with the needs of local economies. Post-16 education has been scratching at this issue for the past 20 years, with only patchy progress to show for it. In the second of our blogs on ABRs, we give some reflections on the lessons to be learnt from some of our recent projects for colleges and LEPs. These studies have been trying to understand how training providers can respond more effectively to the needs of employers. Our insights should provide food for thought on both sides of the discussion before the next waves of ABRs get underway.

The focus on priority sectors should be proportionate to demand

With LEPs involved, there will be an understandable focus in ABRs on the needs of higher skilled and higher value sectors.  These are the sectors which have been prioritised by LEPs as they hold the key to high rates of growth and wealth creation.

But LEPs should not lose sight of the fact that these sectors often account for a very small proportion of the skills needed by local employers.  In areas with an ageing population (which is just about everywhere), demand for health and social care skills is likely to far outweigh the needs of any other sector over the next ten years.   Working Futures forecasts show an estimated 2.1 million workers will need to be trained and recruited into the health and social care sector between 2012 and 2022. This is equivalent to over half of the existing workforce.  FE colleges are therefore wholly justified in providing more qualifications and continuing to work with more employers in the health and social care sector than any other.

Similarly, the popularity of the business administration apprenticeship across a wide range of sectors, and in all parts of the country, reflects a business base increasingly dominated by micro businesses (71% of all businesses had fewer than five employees in 2015).  In these small businesses, it is very often the mundane, day to day admin skills that employers need support with, even in some of the more specialised sectors.  When choosing a provider, these businesses will very often choose their local college out of convenience – something which may come under threat in the move towards fewer, larger providers.

Colleges need to be in a position to defend their current provision; very often it is more closely aligned with the needs of local employers than they get credit for.  They can also point to the high rates of satisfaction among employers who receive publicly funded training; the FE Choices survey shows that 91% of colleges received an overall satisfaction rate of 7 out of 10 or higher for the training they provided to employers (based on 22,000 responses).  This message is often drowned out by the anecdotal evidence put forward by the small numbers who are not satisfied.

Credibility is key

Credibility of training providers is vital for building successful relationships with employers, and should be at the heart of the decision making process about what colleges provide.  Colleges which are able to demonstrate in-depth expertise enhance their credibility in the eyes of employers and this results in higher demand for training.  However, developing this expertise and building credibility takes time and resources.  Some of the most successful Group Training Associations and independent training providers have developed their reputation over 50 years.  They have achieved this by focusing on doing what they do well, recruiting teachers from industry and maintaining a constant dialogue with employers to make sure they stay up to date with industry trends.

Colleges will be faced with some difficult choices about what they provide, and may have to cut back on provision in some areas so they can invest more in their key strengths.  By spreading resources too thinly, they risk lowering quality, which in turn will affect their credibility and employer demand.

Employer engagement should be at the heart of HE provision

A growing number of colleges offer HE courses, either by partnering with universities, or delivering higher level apprenticeships.  The benefits of HE provision in FE colleges are often framed in terms of widening participation and providing progression routes for people who would not normally consider university.  These are undoubtedly key benefits and a focus of the ABRs.

However providing HE courses is also an opportunity for colleges to enhance their credibility in sectors by focusing their HE provision on courses which reflect local industrial strengths, and which entail a high level of employer input in to the design of courses.  Industry-led courses are the main way that FE colleges can differentiate their HE provision from universities and in some cases develop national reputations. Colleges should look at how they can develop these strong industry links and ensure that work placements are a key part of their HE provision.

Embrace specialisation and collaboration

Although the ABRs will (quite rightly) be seen as a cost-cutting exercise by colleges, they do open up an opportunity to rethink the way employers’ skill needs can be addressed in a more strategic way.  The last few years have been something of a free for all, with multiple providers offering the same courses and competing for the same employers.

While there will always be plenty of local demand for colleges to provide the most popular courses, it makes little sense for more specialised learning opportunities to be delivered by several providers in the same area (particularly where this requires expensive equipment).  Most providers recognise this, and we have found that colleges are open to, and indeed enthusiastic about, greater specialisation and collaboration. Any move towards a system in which local parties agree on needs (based on well-evidenced labour market intelligence), and then work towards a more strategic configuration of provision, has to be welcomed.

Recognise local economic geography

Yet, the challenge (and most colleges’ concerns) lies in the number of parties involved in the ABR process, the wide geographies involved, and the short amount of time to deal with very complex issues.  Some of the largest ABRs involve two LEPs, 15 local authorities and just as many colleges, some of which are 40 miles apart from each other.  It would take an impressive feat of leadership to make sound decisions about reorganising provision for such large and diverse areas over the course of just four meetings (as the guidance suggests).  The starting point has to be a sensible discussion about reasonable distances that students are prepared to travel for different types of course, and how this matches local employer demand. The aim should be to identify sub-areas made up of several overlapping college catchments, within which the vast majority of employer and learner demand can be satisfied.

A more strategic approach may be required for more specialised provision.  This should still be organised based on existing strengths and local demand but in some cases may only be viable if it serves a wide area.  This may even require the involvement of neighbouring LEPs or national sector bodies for the most specialised types of provision.

For more information about our experience in undertaking skills and sector analysis and supporting the Area Based Review process please contact Stephen Rosevear, Lauren Newby or Oliver Chapman



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