Interview: John Freeman, Raising Expectations Action Programme - Councils' learning mentor

Ruth Smith
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"The biggest single set of challenges that local authorities have faced for 30 years." That's how John Freeman describes the 7bn transfer of funding from the Learning and Skills Council to local authorities in 2010. It will see local authorities take responsibility for commissioning learning for 16 to 19 year olds and sets the scene for raising the school leaving age to 18 by 2015.

John Freeman
John Freeman

The inaugural joint president of the Association of Directors of Social Services became director of the newly formed Raising Expectations Action Programme last month. His remit is to help local authorities prepare for the change. The vision is to radically improve the participation and attainment of young people. But the task ahead is vast. Each young person will have personalised learning goals and be able to mix school and college-based learning with practical experience in the workplace. From September 2011, they'll have the right to access 17 diplomas and by 2020 a fifth of young people should be doing apprenticeships.

For this to happen, councils will have to analyse demand and commission the right provision from a plethora of work and learning providers.

But Freeman bubbles with enthusiasm as he thumbs through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill 2008/09. It receives its second reading on 23 February and contains many of the statutory changes for the reforms. "Directors of children's services have an understanding of the strategic issues and will be able to manage the transfer well," he says.

Sub-regional groups

One reason for his optimism is that the first hurdle on the road to reform has been successfully passed. This was to create sub-regional groups of local authorities in recognition of the fact that young people don't necessarily study or work in the local authority where they live. "Everyone was a bit concerned about that," he confesses. "But I was delighted in November when the Department for Children, Schools and Families looked at the list of sub-regional groups and found that we had 41 groups that made sense and took into account travel to learn patterns."

By the end of February, each of these regional groups must submit a plan to the DCSF of how they will operate. This will cover areas such as management and governance, as well as how they will resolve potential disputes between local authorities and learning providers. "I'm heartened by the progress local authorities have already made for this next stage," says Freeman.

He also reveals that his advice to the DCSF on what guidance central government should offer regional groups and local authorities has "worked well so far".

Challenges ahead

Of course, many challenges lie ahead. One is the thorny question of what a local authority should do if the majority of its young people want to learn outside council boundaries. "The temptation is to keep the young people. But the trick is how to make sure decisions are based on the good of young people generally rather than the local authority," says Freeman. "There will be tensions, but the legislation is clear that learner choice is important," he adds.

One area that needs more work, he says, is to enable councils to offer "more sophisticated" information, advice and guidance. "Obviously it's important that young people make choices based on what's out there," he explains. This means linking Connexions and other advice services to the commissioning plans for learning providers, as well as managing possible tensions between demand for courses with a knowledge of what jobs are available. "The information should be saying, 'you want to do this, but there are no jobs there'," he explains.

A test of successful reform will be whether the number of young people not in education, employment or training falls as a result of the changes. Again, Freeman believes passionately that they will. "With good information, advice and guidance, and appropriate commissioning, the changes will mean young people will have something more specific for them that meets their needs."

BACKGROUND - The React Programme explained

- The purpose of the Raising Expectations Action Programme, React for short, is to support local authorities as they take on responsibility for the commissioning of learning for 16 to 19 year olds from the Learning and Skills Council. Subject to legislation, this is scheduled for April 2010

- Funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it is staffed by a small team based within the Local Government Association and supported by experts within local authorities

- It will work closely with the Association of Directors of Children's Services

More information can be found at www.lga.gov.uk/react.

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