From education to employment

A bumpy year for training providers – but skills have never been so high on the agenda

Jane Hickie, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

It’s safe to say the past 12 months have been busy for the FE sector. We have seen some really important breakthroughs in government policymaking, but some disappointments too. The Covid-19 pandemic has continued to bring about serious challenges for learners, employers, and training providers.

The good news is that we have seen a renewed focus- right from the top- in getting people into good quality training and work. However, independent training providers (ITPs) will be hoping 2022 brings about a fairer approach from government, so that the whole sector can focus on doing what it does best- delivering for learners and employers.

Levelling-up means taking training providers seriously

At the very beginning of the new year, we were delighted that the long-awaited ‘Skills for Jobs’ white paper recognised the outstanding contribution ITPs make in delivering skills training. The white paper was by no means perfect- the continued focus on institutions rather than learners was a shame, for instance. But the emphasis on employers driving skills priorities is a real step forward. Tied with the “levelling-up” agenda, skills have rarely been as a high a priority for government.

I have never been prouder of our providers and learners, who have demonstrated high levels of resilience throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, despite unprecedented adversity. I was delighted to see Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, point out that over 80% of ITPs are now rated as good or outstanding in her annual report, as well as thanking AELP for being an invaluable source of support, practical advice, and guidance.

The incentives made available through the ‘Plan for Jobs’ have been a fantastic success. We’ve seen over 127,000 new jobs created so far, around 76% of these have been for 16-24-year-olds. More recently, October’s Comprehensive Spending Review set out the Chancellor’s plans for the next three years of departmental spending. The boost for skills was certainly welcome, particularly investment in apprenticeships, traineeships, and employability programmes.

Ahead of party conference season in the autumn, we saw a ministerial reshuffle which gave the government’s frontbench a fresh look. Our initial conversations with the new Department for Education ministerial team – particularly Nadhim Zahawi and Alex Burghart– have been promising. We look forward to strengthening our relationship with them throughout 2022.

Levelling-up needs a level playing field though. Our biggest challenge over the last year has been the continued lack of parity between ITPs and other forms of further education providers. This has been particularly difficult to swallow when comparing access to Covid support packages and procurement outcomes. We’ve also faced far too much bureaucracy at a time when providers should be focusing on the recovery – the register refresh, various consultations and impact they may have and the Skills Bill’s list of relevant providers have all caused issues for our members.

Not for the first time, this summer saw unacceptable delays in the ESFA’s adult education budget tender process. Providers that won contracts were left with just a month to prepare for delivery. This resulted in delays to some programmes in areas where the reskilling of adults is an absolute priority. The opening up of the market to deliver more traineeships through ITPs, who have great links with employers and access to young people, was also subject to hold ups. This led to occasions where providers were forced to turn away some 16-18s year olds as they had no way of getting a contract for this type of provision. These types of delays are completely unacceptable, and ministers must get a grip to ensure this is not repeated in 2022.

Entering 2022 with hope, but also uncertainty

It has been a bumpy year for ITPs. Our members have spent 2021 trying to navigate the continued challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, while maintaining the high standards we’ve come to expect from them. Despite it all, they have done a great job of supporting learners and helping businesses with their skills needs.

The direction of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill – which will continue its progress through parliament into the new year – offers some great opportunities for the sector. However, in its current form, there is still work to be done to maximise learner and employer choice. We remain concerned about the role local skills improvement plans will play and believe that the legislation mustbe clearer on the conditions assigned to those wishing to join the list of relevant providers. There is also a risk the Bill misses an opportunity to introduce more effective measures to enforce the Baker Clause.

As we move into 2022, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect the sector. Although catch-up funding has been made available to 16-19 year olds who need it in classroom-based settings, this support is not available in work-based settings. We must ensure there is enough funding and flexibility built into the system so that learners can complete their qualifications and any disruption to their studies and work life is minimised. Fundamentally this stems from a situation where ITPs aren’t treated as an equal partner within the further education system. We have a large piece of research coming out in the new year which we hope will offer a strong evidence basis for our calls. Our message for 2022 is loud and clear: it is long past time that training providers were valued more and treated as key part of the FE sector.

Jane Hickie is Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). AELP is a national membership body, proudly representing around 800 organisations that deliver training and vocational learning. Their members support thousands of businesses and millions of learners in England by delivering a wide range of training, vocational learning, and employability programmes. AELP members support training to all ages, in every community, and at every level of post-16 study.

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