I’ve been musing on how local accountability for adult learning and skills fits into the ‘grand narrative’ of localism, and pondering whether learning providers really have moved their practice on, are not quite sure how to do it yet, or want to work differently, but are blocked by systems that stop it happening effectively. This has been sparked by two things: a fascinating small piece of research we have just published - Local accountability for adult learning and skills: a community perspective – looking at local accountability from the perspective of communities rather than providers and the development of the Community Learning Trusts.
Our research shows what can be achieved with co-designing services and curriculum working from a community perspective. Kirklees Council put its head above the parapet and let us reflect with local communities about local accountability for community learning. The Council’s partnership with providers and community organisations shows it’s not a quick fix – local accountability isn’t something on a list that slots in between the ILR returns and the observation of teaching and learning schedule (important as both these are!). We found that things happen quietly, often below the radar, but there is a clear message – it’s a way of thinking, a way of operating and a method of governance that turns the traditional power base on its head. Elected members and senior council officers articulate a vision of learning that provides the link between the agendas of place and well-being; a vision for individuals, families and local capacity-building for strong and sustainable communities and to support the local economy. Communities articulate that a strong local vision and joint working is not just about money or courses – it’s about infrastructure support, local join up and providing a launch pad to so much more.
The Community Learning Trusts, whether national pilots or local areas just getting on with it, will equally be articulating the local vision of the phrase ‘community-led, provider-backed’ hopefully with as many different models of learning for localism action as communities.
One of the issues we’ve been trying to get to grips with at NIACE, is how providers interact with each other and the local community to identify and meet needs – whether to fill local skills gaps, support communities to take on new responsibilities or identify who is getting left behind as a result of the current economic climate and the deficit reduction programme. We are concerned that in some places as money gets tighter and there is an increased urgency to do ‘more for less’, some learners with the greatest needs are getting left behind as a few providers are becoming more insular and increasingly risk averse in terms of curriculum and seeking out the changing needs of communities. “Who is not there?” is a key question in terms of considering local accountability.
In my mind, local accountability is a balance of democratic accountability, provider governance, market forces, freedoms and flexibilities and the social justice agenda: it is the fulcrum of all these change agendas. When operating effectively it should ensure that the whole of the learning continuum works in an area with the council, voluntary and community organisations, large providers and employers, all working together to identify and meet local needs whether through learning programmes, community provision, in work training, programmes for the unemployed or specialist provision.
But what of the policy tensions that stop this working? Are we expecting local organisations to take the lead when national policy fails to make effective joins? Is there a tension between localism and ensuring provision is decentralised to the lowest level, whilst skills funding rules are pulling in the opposite direction? Is there effective join up between learning and skills and DWP provision?
We’d be really interested to know what’s working well in your local area in terms of local accountability and equally the policy blocks that stop it happening. Either leave a comment below, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org