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What next for the Skills Funding Agency?

The  resignation of the Geoff Russell,  Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency ( SFA) , took many of us  by surprise earlier this year particularly as it coincided with the departure of Simon Waugh as CEO of  the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS).  At the time there was much speculation that both organisations would be merged.

Geoff’s departure was particularly interesting. Following the announcement of his resignation on 22nd January 2012, a BIS press release suggested that he had informed the Department about his wish to move on in August 2011 which rather contradicted Geoff’s own statement in an interview with FE Week in October 2011 when he had stated that he had” no firm plans to move on” although  he would consider the right opportunity if it came along. Presumably he  eventually decided to seize the opportunity of spending more time with his dogs whose health and well-being have featured prominently in his weekly email briefings to SFA staff.

In announcing his resignation, or “retirement” as the SFA website chose to describe it at the time, he claimed that it was because he had completed his task of creating an Agency which was “ structured and able to perform a new role in promoting and funding FE colleges and other training organisations to meet the challenge of equipping England’s economy with the skills it needs to overcome economic challenges”.  Fine words but what do they mean?  In what shape is the SFA which he’ll be leaving soon?

A document published by the SFA in January 2012 provides details about the Agency before and after a restructure in 2011. In March 2011 the SFA had 1,654 employees which following the restructure was reduced to 1,229.  Although the newly structured Agency was effective from October 2011, the bulk of employees didn’t leave until December 2011. At a time of austerity it is interesting to note that the average salary for female workers is  £40,746 whilst the average for males if £45,976.

So much for staffing levels, what about its performance?

The SFA’s role and responsibilities (and that of  the National Apprenticeship Service – NAS)  and the relationship between the Agency and the Service was called into question in December  2011 at the height of the public debate about the quality of short term apprenticeships. The Public Accounts Committee report on short apprenticeships adds fuel to the flames by suggesting that  “The Service should work closely with the Agency to link the funding it provides more closely with the delivery costs.”  The report goes as far as to call for a structural review of  the SFA and NAS to ensure that there is  “minimal duplication” in their responsibilities. It further states that “The relationship between the NAS and SFA remains unclear  So, if MPs don’t understand what the relationship is between the two bodies, what hope do we regular punters have?.

An article in FE Week ( May 2012) highlighted the regularity with which SFA providers have received in-year  increases  from the Agency since August 2011.  As nice as it must be to receive them, it rather makes a nonsense of the business planning undertaken by colleges  which was based on slashed funding and resulted in staff redundancies . As if this wasn’t enough to shake confidence in the Agency, it was revealed in  May that “an investigation into secret changes to a government website  unearthed “process failures” and an inability to pinpoint who made the unauthorised adjustments to data –  in short someone at the Agency made changes to data but no-one knows who authorised the changes. Remedial action has been taken, but one is left asking-  what next?

Despite John Hayes’ glowing testimonials to Geoff’s achievements , one can’t help wondering whether the Agency and its work is sustainable what with  rising unemployment, a challenging government agenda and the relentless round of cuts.  The fact that Kim Thorneywork’s   appointment as  Chief Executive of the Agency is interim fuels speculation about its continued existence in its current form and structure .

Lindiwe is highly experienced in working in Further Education, with schools, colleges and work-based learning providers.  She has a particular specialism in advising on ways  analysing data to inform funding and commissioning decisions for LLDD provision. She is currently working as an interim Post 16 Education Commissioner in a local authority focussing on the placement of learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities and identifying ways to improve  their experience and outcomes.  Lindiwe is working with colleagues in SEN and Adult Services teams to develop quality standards and a quality framework to support value for money decision-making.  Please contact us  for more information.

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