Before the onset of the pandemic, Government planned to introduce various policy initiatives within its ‘levelling up’ agenda – including an overhaul of the skills system. After much delay, the (FE) White Paper – Skills for Jobs – was finally launched last week. Given the labour market upheaval brought about by Covid-19 and Brexit, the scope of this strategy will now need to extend beyond the ambition to ‘level up’ opportunities that characterised its initial announcement some time ago.
Overall, the strategy set out in the paper seeks to enhance the role of further and technical education, to address skills gaps within the economy which stifle productivity and international competitiveness. There is much to welcome in it. The Lifelong Learning Fund Entitlement is among its most noteworthy measures, and will provide four years of post-18 education funding, at any stage of a career - although it won’t be introduced until 2025.
Broadening access to upskilling is vital. Our Learning to Level Up research found that workers in lower skilled occupations face greater barriers to training, and over 7.5 million mid-career workers have not taken part in training since leaving full time education. The opportunity to access financial support will help those who would benefit most from training opportunities.
The outlined steps to increase provision of flexible, modular learning is welcome. Pilots to stimulate the delivery of higher technical education will be developed by DfE, and blended learning that includes online provision will be encouraged through new standards, to enhance flexibility. These steps also have the potential to increase access. Our research found that rigid course structures centred on classroom-based learning over large blocks of time exclude many mid-career workers who need to up-skill in order to improve their pay and escape insecure work: – 1.9 million mid-career workers with dependent children under-16 find it harder to access training.
The paper also proposes to give employers a more central role in developing technical qualifications through establishing new Local Skills Development Plans, College Business Centres within FE Colleges. In principle, greater employer involvement in the local provision of skills and training is a good thing. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy shows that mismatches between the skill needs of businesses, and learning provision provided through Further Education courses, are common in many local areas. However, greater employer engagement has been a long-stated policy ambition and questions remain on how this can be meaningfully achieved in practice.
While there is much to welcome in the White Paper, the scale of ambition needs to be matched by necessary investment. Government spending on skills has historically been lower in the UK than other OECD countries, and with the Spending Review pared back to a single year due to the pandemic, and with a Budget due in March, we will need to wait a little longer to see if Government is willing to invest at the scale required.
Skills for Jobs also sets out some further detail on the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. While in principle, an entitlement for all adults to receive a level 3 qualification is welcome, we would have liked to seen provision expanded to include people who are not eligible as they already hold this qualification. Our analysis has found that the scheme will be inaccessible to 1.4 million mid-career workers in lower skilled occupations who already hold a level 3 qualification. It is not fair to exempt people from the benefits of re-skilling due to what a person might have studied at 17. Lots of adults with a level 3 qualification have persistently been in poor quality work, and many are in sectors most affected by Covid-19, including retail and tourism.
The paper has attracted some criticism for the lack of strategic alignment with the priorities of other Government departments. The need for joint planning between DfE and DWP could not be more acute. The number of people on Universal Credit has shot up over the course of the crisis, but welfare conditionality acts as a barrier to building new skills, with requirements to be available to apply for jobs and start work preventing claimants participating in any training, even on a part-time basis. Given the current turbulence in the labour market, DWP and DfE should be working hand in hand to support people to move from benefits into work.
In vision and rhetoric, the FE White Paper does mark a sea change in approach to further and technical education, and hopefully indicates that levelling up is not only dependent on the delivery of infrastructure. There is an opportunity to reform our skill system to improve the employment prospects and opportunities for adults. However, Government’s commitment to this endeavour will only truly become evident through practical delivery and sustained investment.
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