City & Guilds published the second version of its Manifesto for Skills in November 2008 and we have followed this up with a series of briefings that have been discussed with representatives of the major political parties.
What all parties are now facing up to is that debt reduction is inescapable, and that all departmental budgets will be savagely trimmed over the next 18 months, no matter which party (or parties) form the new government. Many FE colleges are preparing for 10-20% cuts in funding and private training providers face even deeper cuts in Train to Gain funding.
In many policy areas there is understandable scepticism about efficiency savings being able to make any significant contribution to cost reduction, but in FE we do have such a plethora of bodies set up to deliver on targets, to regulate or to inspect that most practitioners feel instinctively that we could cut a swathe through it all with little or no detrimental impact. City & Guilds has much sympathy with this view.
We have long had a concern about the government’s view of demand-led provision. For example, many employers are keen on Apprenticeships and the government can offer inducements for them to be offered, but it has no direct means of ensuring that they are available in particular geographical areas or employment sectors. There is also the problem of ‘deadweight’ – funding programmes that employers would have paid for themselves.
We are strong supporters of Apprenticeships, but we believe that both employers and potential apprentices need to be convinced of the value of the programmes if they are to succeed – SMEs may need more of a carrot than companies with established training programmes. Moreover, in most cases directly funding an individual through a system of carefully constructed learner accounts would be a better way to allocate resources effectively. We do believe there should be a universal entitlement to funding for a first level 3 qualification, and that some leeway is needed to enable re-skilling in areas where there is a potential skills shortage.
The main political parties have been strangely quiet in their manifestos about the need to focus on a greatly improved, all-age information, advice and guidance system to ensure that young people particularly have access to impartial advice that is firmly rooted in up-to-date labour market information. The lack of solid, impartial careers guidance lies at the root of many of the problems faced by young people who may not be suited to the academic pathway that is too often presented as their destiny.
We believe that learners should be given maximum choice to enrol on programmes that play to their strengths and match their evolving career aspirations. The decision to close down options for 14-19 year olds so that they will only be publicly funded to undertake GCSE/A-levels, Foundation Learning, Diplomas and Apprenticeships is profoundly short-sighted and mistaken. Where is the vocational offer that many thousands of people study now? Apprenticeships can only ever be one option – the length and depth of programmes does not suit many learners who need something more suited to their learning styles.
We are excited by the prospect of a new ‘technician class’ but it is not yet clear what this will involve. It seems likely that the target group is those who will be studying subjects that have a strong STEM element and that it will be based around a registration structure for those who have attained level 3 qualifications. City & Guilds would very much like to see whether there is room for a programme of learning that will be more ‘taught’ than work-based (paralleling Apprenticeships, therefore) and which could provide progression opportunities to a Master level.
Like everyone else, we await the result of the election with interest and some apprehension.
Andrew Sich is head of corporate affairs at City & Guilds, which helps two million learners work towards one of its qualifications every year