In this article for FE News, AELP Chair Nichola Hay MBE outlines her view of how 2023 has gone for the skills sector and starts to look ahead to what 2024 may bring.
2023 has been another busy year for AELP and our members as we strive towards delivering the skills training the country needs. In many ways, it’s been a very tough year for the sector. We’ve consistently warned of the impact of rising costs as early as the start of 2022, but this year they’ve really started to bite. That has led to disastrous consequences for many providers with severe knock-on impact of disruption for learners and reduced choice for employers alike.
A tough year for the sector’s financial health
Over the summer we launched the Save Our Skills Sector campaign on the back of news that several training providers were on the verge of ceasing trading due to their financial situation. Spiralling costs for providers combined with traineeships contracts and non-devolved adult education budget contracts ending at similar times, alongside an apprenticeship funding review system that takes far too long has created a perfect storm which not everyone has been able to weather.
A financially healthy skills sector is vital if we’re to have the right level of availability and choice for learners and employers and I was delighted that over 100 organisations signed our open letter to the Secretary of State for Education calling for immediate action to be taken to safeguard the future of the skills sector. A big challenge for the year ahead will be to ensure that the Treasury, DfE, IfATE and the ESFA understand the actual picture on the ground being experienced by providers – and that they respond accordingly.
Despite the tough outlook for providers, we have had a number of successful wins for the sector throughout 2023. We started the year with the introduction of a Shadow Nominee during the Ofsted inspection process – that’s something we’ve been suggesting for a while. In the Spring we heard the welcome news about the removal of cap of ten apprentices for non-levy paying employers.
During the summer, IfATE’s exceptional funding band review eventually recommended an increase in funding for a small number of apprenticeship standards. Our close working relationship with the DfE also meant we were able secure simplification and reduced bureaucracy to the apprenticeship funding rules – including relaxing ‘active learning’ requirements. I know providers were particularly pleased at how much earlier than usual these rules were first published too.
At the Conservative Party conference, we finally saw our effort rewarded with the announcement of a 54% increase in the funding rate for maths and English functional skills qualifications. Kudos to Kate Ridley-Moy, the new Director of Apprenticeships and Skills Bootcamps, for recognising the need to expedite this with an implementation date being brought forward to January 2024. Funding is just one piece of the jigsaw and we will keep banging the drum on the wider rules on exemptions, exit requirements and ensuring the qualifications are functional and fit for purpose.
We’ve also been pushing hard to ensure ITPs will be part of the future Lifelong Learning Entitlement landscape. In the DfE’s consultation response, there was a positive commitment that the Office for Students (OfS) would consult on a “third recognition route”. This would help offer a route into being recognised by the OfS for new providers who didn’t want to offer full or part degree awarding powers. Although the recent decision to push back the entry point for those providers to 2027 is disappointing, this is progress nonetheless.
Delivering for our members all year round
Advocating on behalf of the skills sector isn’t all we do though – this year we’ve been working hard on behalf of our members putting on nearly 40 events in 2023, including conferences, workshops, and summits! These events served as platforms for colleagues from across the sector to come together, exchange knowledge, and collaborate on key issues. In addition to this, we’ve hosted over 100 online webinars on a wide range of vital topics.
We have also continued to work with partners to deliver vital research into the country’s skills system, including Raising The Standard, which explored the underlying detail behind headline apprenticeship achievement rates, and Future-Ready Vocational Education, the influence of AI on work-based learning and includes recommendations on how to incorporate technology into training methods effectively.
AELP has also been working alongside The Education and Training Foundation, Association of Colleges, The Strategic Development Network and University Vocational Awards Council to help design and deliver the Department for Education’s Apprenticeship Workforce Development (AWD) programme.
You will have also noticed that this year we relaunched our website (www.aelp.org.uk) giving it a new look so it’s easier to navigate and accessible to the widest possible audience, regardless of technology or ability. So I guess you can say it’s been a pretty busy year!
Moving into 2024…
2024 will see AELP guided by the expert and enthusiastic leadership of our new Chief Executive Officer, Ben Rowland. Ben has recently taken up his role and is currently meeting key stakeholders across the sector. He is also planning an AELP CEO Roadshow in the early part of 2024, where he can listen to AELP members and discuss the challenges providers and employers face – so keep an eye out for details on that.
As I’ve said it’s been a tough year financially, but there is hope is on the horizon. This autumn we launched Skills Means Growth, our vision for a sustainable skills sector. We took that vision to the main political party conferences throughout September and October, and this enabled us to have some serious discussions with the parties ahead of them writing their manifestos for the next General Election – which will surely come at some point in 2024! Engaging with politicians of all sides will continue be a major priority for us in 2024.
I’m really proud of everything that AELP has achieved this year. Whether it’s the services we provide to members, the webinars we put on, the multitude of events and conferences we hold, or the advocacy work we do on behalf of our members, we couldn’t do it without the dedicated and expertise of our staff. A huge thank you must go to them as well as our members and patrons who help to fund our activities throughout the year. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and I look forward to working with you again in 2024.
By AELP Chair Nichola Hay MBE