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FE White Paper marks a sea-change in Government thinking on skills

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee

#BuildBackBetter clearly means building back a skills nation 

The proposals from the Prime Minister and Department for Education set out in the FE White Paper marks a sea-change in Government thinking on skills.

Not only will these plans revolutionise skills in this nation, meet employer needs and rocket-boost apprenticeships, but they will give everyone, whatever their age and background, the chance to climb the skills ladder of opportunity.

Local Skills Improvement Plans

First, a German-style model that links colleges with employers will ensure education and training is much better suited to local skills needs. But this isn’t just all talk (und keine Aktion), Local Skills Improvement Plans are being backed with the funding to implement them and deliver real results.

Employer-college partnerships work well in practice. I’ve seen it for myself, when I visited the Ron Dearing UTC in Hull, last year. By engaging with business in the local area, the college is able to offer a blend of high-quality academic and technical education, giving their young people the skills they need to thrive in the workplace. The proof is in its outcomes: 49% of students went on to complete apprenticeships in 2019 (which is far higher than the 6% of school leavers across the country).

These strong relationships between businesses and colleges will also help drive recruitment of quality, industry experts into FE teaching, which is particularly important for principals struggling to fill vacancies in high-skills-need subject areas, like engineering and construction.

At a national level, the content of post-16 technical courses, qualifications and apprenticeships will be brought in line with a common set of employer standards. Young people can have confidence that what they are studying in school is preparing them for the competitive job market, whilst employers know they are taking on someone worth their salt. It’s a win-win.

Toughening up enforcement of the Baker Clause

Second, the first port of call for many students seeking careers guidance is their family. Yet just 28% of parents are confident advising their children about apprenticeships, and this plummets to 21% when it comes to technical/vocational options.

So it is enormously welcome that the White Paper pledges to toughen up enforcement of the Baker Clause, with schools’ careers funding conditional on compliance. Schools will also be required to offer independent careers advice from the lower age group of Year 7, which shows the Government is serious about building parity of esteem between technical/vocational and academic routes, right from the get-go.

Moving forward, we must make it our mission to ensure students are aware of every option available to them.

Gavin Williamson 100x100When I asked the Education Secretary if he would establish a UCAS for FE in the House of Commons this week, he welcomed this suggestion, saying:

“I would like UCAS to have a list of college courses available to students, especially if we move to a system of post-qualification application

“I would happily take up [the] thought of a parallel system to UCAS… so students are making the very best decision for their future.”

Turbo-charging apprenticeships

Third, on the plan to turbo-charge apprenticeships, the Government’s aims are clear:

  • to drive up quality,
  • expand the sectors in which apprenticeships are available,
  • remove the barriers for smaller businesses, and
  • ensure value-for-money.

More flexible, modular learning

Fourth, in December, my Education Select Committee published a report on adult skills, which called for “a shift to more flexible, modular learning so that adults can ‘hop on and hop off’ learning pathways” and simplified funding flows in adult education.

With estimates suggesting anything from 10 to 35% of jobs are at “high risk” of automation or replacement in the next 20 years, it is high time there was a proper plan for lifelong learning – one that recognises the need for study and training to fit around busy lifestyles.

Accessible finance for all higher technical routes

As part of the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, the Government is making finance for higher technical routes just as accessible as it is currently for a full-length university degree. It will also be flexible, with students able to space out their studies, transfer credits between institutions and opt for more part-time learning – all with a stronger focus on online and blended teaching.

Moreover, the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund will be used to tackle the decline in adult participation in Further Education. From April 2021, adults without A Levels (or equivalent) can take part in courses in subjects that meet the nation’s key skills priorities for the future.

The Government’s proposals are incredibly exciting

Of course, the devil will be in the detail, and as a Committee, we look forward to scrutinising what these plans will mean for students, colleges and employers.

For too long, Further Education has been the Cinderella sector, whilst Higher Education and traditional, academic routes have enjoyed the spotlight. As a champion of education, skills and apprenticeships in Parliament, the Government’s proposals are incredibly exciting.

Build back better, clearly means building back a skills nation.

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee
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