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West Midlands has no plans to claw back AEB funds

Exclusive: West Midlands Combined Authority says it doesn’t see the need to raise threshold on adult education delivery

Further education providers in the West Midlands will not see a clawback on devolved adult education funding, the director of skills and productivity at West Midlands Combined Authority, Julie Nugent has said. 

In early April, the government announced that a 90 per cent threshold for delivery on its adult education budget (AEB) would be introduced. Last year, the threshold was lowered to 68 per cent, due to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the education sector.

The change in threshold has sparked outrage across the FE sector, with many leaders warning of colleges losing out on millions of pounds

That threshold, however, only applies to funds directly distributed by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. In the West Midlands, a combined authority for which adult education funding is devolved, there will not be a “rigid rule” on delivery, says Ms Nugent. 

Speaking exclusively to Tes, Ms Nugent said the WMCA didn’t see the need for the changes, and has sought to work with the colleges to understand any issues around delivery, and come up with solutions. 

‘No rigid rule’ for adult education funding clawback

She said: “We haven’t brought in a rigid rule for clawback. We don’t think there’s a need. Clearly the pandemic has had a massive impact on delivery, but in the West Midlands, colleges and training providers responded really, really well, and adapted quickly to new challenges. At the same time, this is still public money, so we have a duty to make sure we are acting responsibly in how this is spent.

“There’s a valid conversation to have and it is a conversation, not a hard and fast rule. Our starting point is to understand how colleges and providers have adapted. The vast majority have shifted online. One or two have struggled but we have talked to them about how they might phase in a response, or deliver more, later on.

“We are also clear that we are working with the sector to affect a wider shift – to more provision that leads to jobs, more provision delivering what employers need, and higher-level skills. We recognise that takes time to deliver but it is also what our economy needs. That requires a new way of working with the FE sector – moving away from transactional relationships to a more transformative agenda.”

Ms Nugent said the WMCA didn’t want to see providers subcontracting provision out, and made it clear the authority wouldn’t “snap money back”. 

She said: “We’re not just going to snap money back because a college hits a certain percentage. Our experience of national funding systems suggests that this can often drive unhelpful behaviours, and undermine investment in skills that actually supports local people to upskill. We don’t want to destabilise colleges in a way that can take years to put right.

“At the same time, it is public money and we are very clear about the outcomes and the value for money we expect. Our commitment is we will work with you – the earlier the better. And actually, we’ve had people flag that they weren’t going to spend their full allocation last year. They have said, ‘Can we give that money up? But we can have another conversation next year so we can grow back, once we’ve recovered?’ That’s been a fair and reasonable discussion, where we have worked together to do this, where our focus is on enabling a strong FE sector able to give local people and businesses the skills provision they need.”

Ms Nugent said government systems are often “inflexible and unresponsive”. 

“There’s a big lesson for government here,” she said. “I say this from having been in a government department: the further away you are from delivery, the greater the risks feel, and the more steps you put in place to manage that risk. However, that can often mean you end up with a system that is inflexible and unresponsive. Mayoral combined authorities like ours can work closely with government departments, delivering policy ambitions in ways that are more flexible and much closer to communities and businesses.

“Devolution means you can have a much closer collaborative relationship with your provider base, but it also allows you to take managed risks in a way that encourages and enables innovation while still getting best value from the public purse.”

Lowell Williams, chair of Colleges West Midlands (CWM), said the partnership between WMCA and CWM had meant avoiding the blunt, formulaic approach to adult education funding.

“Things are clearly different in the West Midlands than elsewhere in much of England,” he said. “In Colleges West Midlands, we have an extensive, formal and structured collaboration of colleges. Through the West Midlands Combined Authority, we have regional devolution and an authority with a remit for adult skills. Together, we have worked hard to develop meaningful relationships and mutual understanding, with a clear focus on the long-term needs of adults in the region.

“This understanding is the foundation for WMCA taking a considered and tailored approach to the allocation of adult funds during and beyond the pandemic, avoiding the blunt, formulaic approach to adult education funding we have seen elsewhere. Devolution has supported this, massively.”

The Department for Education declined to comment. 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.