Lack of learning from Somerset’s failure

Somerset residents face the prospect of a serious cut in the adult education provision available in the county next year, and substantial staffing reductions in their major adult education provider. Somerset Skills and Learning (SSL) is having to turn hundreds of students away and make teaching staff redundant this summer after failing to win a contract from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in a recent bidding round. The cause of the crisis can be traced back to a short-sighted decision by Somerset County Council (SCC) some six years ago.

The origins of the problem lie in the rules governing public expenditure. Public bodies like county councils and further education colleges are eligible to receive ‘grant-in-aid’ from the state to help fund their programmes. Government is free to allocate such support as it sees fit. Private organisations, however, can only receive public funding after taking part in a fair and open competition. Giving public money to private bodies without a transparent procurement process is generally known as corruption. In 2015 Somerset County Council effectively transferred its adult education provision from the public to the private sector, setting in train a disastrous chain of events.

A number of local authorities have taken the decision to subcontract out the delivery of adult education, along with other services. It was not surprising that Somerset chose to move in the same direction. The county council is not renowned for its ability to deliver high quality provision, having been severely criticised, for example, for the quality of Children’s Services.  It also had a very good local provider in SSL.

Rather than seek to manage SSL as a subcontractor, however, SCC decided to wash its hands of the whole business and, in the jargon, ‘novate’ the contract. In other words, it gave up its responsibility for securing adult education provision for the people of Somerset, leaving government to deal directly with SSL. Since SSL is a private body, government had no choice but to require it to bid for funding in a national competition.

The consequence in 2017 was that SSL lost out in the competition and was faced with a 97 per cent reduction in its funding, effectively wiping out the largest part of provision for adults in the county. Only a concerted effort by the county’s four Conservative MPs produced an ad hoc solution that rescued the situation. Though some might have found it amusing to see Conservative MPs lobbying a Conservative government to protect a Conservative council from the consequences of a Conservative policy, it was a serious matter for Somerset citizens.  Moreover, the intervention only brought temporary relief. Four years later SSL finds itself in a similar position.

It is not clear whether SCC used the time bought by the MPs’ intervention to seek a more secure basis for adult education in the county, but there is no evidence that it has made any effort to do so. That would be a serious dereliction of its duty. Adult education is critical at the current time, both to help tackle widespread skill shortages and to combat the growing crisis of mental health. Yet rather than act as a champion of such provision on behalf of its residents, SCC appears as a helpless bystander.

There is plenty of evidence of SCC failing to provide adequate services for its residents, whether in respect of special needs education or the stewardship of the public finances. This debacle shows that it is failing even to learn from its mistakes.