DfE moves to centralise post-16 policy

Concerning hints at the future of post-compulsory policy arrived with Sir David Bell's review of the Education and Skills Funding Agency

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) will be refocused on “core activities” around funding and delivery, with policy functions moving to a new DfE directorate covering further education, higher education, and employers – centralising post-16 education and skills policy under a single director.

The government’s response to Bell’s recommendations makes sense when we consider the direction of travel set out in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill – the idea that distinctions between sectors will slowly dissolve with the advent of the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) that will fund provision in the same way via a modified, modular, student loans system. Policy in this world will need to be a lot more joined up than it currently is – and all this poses significant questions about higher education policy.

Currently, although the Office for Students is cast primarily as an independent sector regulator it does have significant policy development and data analysis functions that are specific to and bespoke for higher education. This, in part, is a legacy from the days of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which maintained a sizable policy development capacity – serving to “finesse” government proposals (the old “buffer body” role).

DfE does ask complex questions of OfS, and it doesn’t (the NSS reforms, for instance) always get answers that it likes. For this reason it is not a popular agency in central government – a reputation divorced entirely from the agencies actual record on regulation.

So – given this direction of travel, there is a world where OfS becomes a pure regulator, shorn of the extended range of policy development and analysis functionality – which would move into DfE’s big new joined up post-16 policy development directorate. Though some may welcome the prospect of OfS getting its wings clipped, the idea of policy moving even further away from the sector – and more attached to the wilder whims of the cavalcade of ministers we’ve seen in the past few years – is not a happy one.

A thing, as they say, to keep an eye on.

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