I have been very vocal, in my opinion wholly justified about the competence of the ESFA and the people at the top of the organisation over recent years, not just since 2018 but well before that. However, the appointment of the present CEO who has now resigned to go to pastures new must create an opportunity for a root and branch review of the ESFA.
The CEO and senior team play a difficult role in managing the expectations of Ministers and implementing policy and whilst within the microcosm of Post 16 Learning it does feel and indeed is a shambles, we must recognise that the ESFA deals with much more than this part of the sector.
I was reflecting today on how could they have got it so wrong:
- Consistent failure to meet their own timetables on almost every tender over the past 3 years
- The total failure to manage the provider network or attempt to build any form of relationship with the provider network in a positive manner
- Engendering a feeling of fear and persecution if anyone rises above to criticise the ESFA and its operations
- A shambolic approach to provider entry and exit including the new ROATP and forthcoming register announcements
- A total lack of any ability to understand how to read a balance sheet, manage financial health of the sector and make decisions that defy any form of intellectual logic.
I have also reviewed the various appointments made by the ESFA over the past few years – almost no new appointments from anyone who has not occupied similar roles and a shuffling of the ‘deck chairs’. It has left an organisation that is so dis-connected with its provider base it is shocking, an organisation that doesn’t listen and a contract with providers that gives them no ability to negotiate or indeed right of appeal if the ESFA decide (as they often do) to interpret their own funding rules in different days, dependent upon which day it is.
It got me thinking why this could be the case? And I realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with the structure of the ESFA.
The majority of the CEO’s time must be spent dealing with Schools policy, addressing the political hot potato of the teaching unions, the power of head-teachers and trust leaders and the importance of continuity of learning for our children and grand-children and juggling the myriad of issues that brings. The CEO has to devote his / her time to those significant issues – and frankly whether we like it or not, Post 16 wouldn’t get much air-time if I was doing the job either.
That doesn’t make an excuse for the culture of fear that has built during the past few years – and that must be addressed if we are to have a vibrant Post 16 sector because we don’t have providers that are financially strong – and a few more collapses will fundamentally change the provider base for the future.
If the Government and Ministers are serious about Post 16 then lets take the opportunity to pause and look at how the ESFA can provide the support and new culture that is required. Whether we like it not, there is little linkage between Schools and Post 16 in policy terms and believe me there are enough issues that will emerge for the ESFA to deal with around the poor governance in Trusts and their lack of skills to deliver effective oversight in organisations which are becoming significant businesses with turnovers in excess of £100m.
For me, we need a Post 16 Skills Council – to deal with policy and not just hide behind funding following the White Paper advocacy and forthcoming legislation and with that new Leadership. Above all, we need someone that understands the sector in all its guises, believes there is a part for both FE and PTP’s, is prepared to build partnerships and an effective ECO structure to support the many facets all parts of the sector brings and that means not another career civil servant.
We see too many career politicians and the problems that causes – now is not the time to make the mistakes of the past and appoint another.
I call for a reform of the ESFA, a change of culture and importantly an appointment that will build trust back into the system because believe me, there is little trust at the moment and the current incumbent has to take some responsibility for that.