WMCETT spent several months in 2012 working on the LSIS-funded Changing Landscapes project.
In 2011 WMCETT successfully bid for funding from LSIS’s Regional Response Fund to establish a series of networks across the West Midlands region to examine the rationalisation of funding for the lifelong learning sector and policy and practice changes. The Change Exchange networks gave opportunities for providers to share plans, practices and priorities to generate income and maintain a diversity of provision that met the needs of employers and learners.
In 2012 WMCETT was invited to bid for funds for a follow-up project, Changing Landscapes.
Changing Landscapes objectives
The key objectives of the Changing Landscapes project 2012 were:
- Establish knowledge exchange networks to include a wide range of learning and skills providers in the main regional areas.
- Research the current context and explore key issues with a sample of providers to identify changes, effective practice and strongest challenges arising from the new policy context.Provide research-based evidence of provider experience to inform each round of discussion and knowledge exchange.
- Invite participation by government agencies, (SFA, JCP/DWP, BIS Local) as well as LEPs and local authorities to both inform and learn from debateDisseminate findings to inform providers and policy makers in the learning and skills sector.
Examining the implications of New Challenges, New Chances
LSIS had wanted the projects in this round of the RRF process to give special consideration to the coalition government strategies for the lifelong learning sector outlined in New Challenges, New Chances (published in December 2011). These included:
- Changes in vocational education and qualifications. This is being reviewed at the present time.
- Changes in how colleges will be judged by Ofsted and the focus on improving teaching and learning.
- The changes in governance structures in FE Colleges and the release of FE from departmental control and protection.
- The freedom that colleges will have to change their constitution and become businesses or federations or other models.
- A greater requirement for self regulation.
- Changes in the funding system.
- The development of global FE.
Changing Landscapes research
The project began with research which aimed to identify changed practices and ways of working, and new collaborations, which emerged from the key policy changes arising from New Challenges, New Chances. Interviews with providers across the West Midlands identified a range of changing practices, collaborations, partnerships and challenges.
Changing Landscapes meetings and questions for analysis
Network meetings were held in Worcester, Shropshire, Walsall and Coventry comprising representatives of key agencies. There were also representatives from across the further education and skills sectors, and the policy agencies included the Skills Funding Agency, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Jobcentre plus Local Enterprise Partnerships.
The meetings were followed up by a series of one-to-one interviews and a second cycle of network meetings to consider the findings from research activities. The meetings were held at Worcester, Shropshire and Coventry.
Key issues identified
The network groups identified the following issues that they felt needed to be addressed.
Work-based learning organisations identified issues about contract sizes and the lack of opportunity to access innovation and development funding. Third sector organisations identified that contracts through local authorities were diminishing and organisations are vulnerable. They also reported that collaborations and partnerships were emerging between Third Sector and other organisations. Further education colleges and adult community learning departments were acting as prime contractors for small projects.
Other findings included that collaboration and support between providers is developing, and there was a greater understanding of the potential for co-production.
Discussions with LEPs showed they all now had Learning and Skills boards, and different models were emerging, such as The Staffordshire Education Trust. Some FE providers thought they were well represented on these boards, although some still had concerns about FE representation. Questions were raised about the Learning and Skills Boards’ planning of learning and skills requirements in their localities, and whether those needs would be identified in relation to the economic requirements or the needs of the people in the community. There was a tension between the LEPs’ focus on specific skills needs and the needs of learners in a locality. Providers considered that they were caught in the middle of both responding to the community and responding to requirements of economic growth. Both are aspirations within New Challenges, New Chances.
Representatives of FE colleges identified how they are planning to use the new freedoms and flexibilities which are granted in New Challenges, New Chances. It was recognised that some colleges are merging or forming federations and some were thought to be focusing more on jobs, and others on community need. There was also evidence of partnerships and contractual relationships between WBL, ACL and Third Sector and FE colleges. Concerns were raised about the difficulties experienced by national colleges for people with disabilities with the introduction of new legislation. There was also real concern about planning provision for adult learners over the age of 23 who will have to access loans from 2013.
Representatives of the SFA and BIS said they would take back issues and discuss problems identified.
Feedback from network meetings was generally positive and it was felt by a significant number of people that the Changing Landscapes form was useful for providing a platform to discussion national policy and the implications this would have upon those working in the West Midlands region. A number of participants specifically requested that the forum continues, with comments including:
“I made useful contacts with providers” BIS Local.
“Lots of contacts, really good opportunity for open and frank discussion.” Third Sector.
“Quarterly meetings would be useful, as it is a safe place to have the discussion between providers and policy people.” LEP rep.
“I love this forum – please keep doing it!” WBL Organisation.
WMCETT was successful in applying for funding from the LSIS Regional Response Fund for 2012-13 for a project called Changing the Dynamics, which aims to work mainly with FE colleges and the Third Sector, to look at ways they can engage and work together.
There are also plans for a round of Changing Landscapes meetings in summer 2013 to pick up on some of the points and issues raised here, and to enable participants to meet and update each other on new developments.