From education to employment

Five Takeaways From AELP’s Autumn Conference 2023

Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) 

Last week, AELP once again hosted its Autumn Conference in Manchester which, this year, was attended by over 250 people from across the skills sector. In this article AELP’s Director of Policy, Simon Ashworth sets out his five key takeaways from the conference.

AELP has appointed a new Chief Executive

Its exciting times at AELP, with the big announcement at the start of our Autumn Conference from AELP Chair Nichola Hay MBE that we have appointed a new Chief Executive Officer, Ben Rowland.

Ben is well known across the sector having set up Arch Apprenticeships in 2012 – which went on to achieve Outstanding Ofsted grading. He has also spent time on the Department for Education’s Apprenticeship Stakeholder Board. More recently he has been working in an independent advisory capacity for corporates, non-profits and government organisations, working on learning and career programmes. He is currently working on a new transatlantic apprenticeship exchange programme with ECCTIS.

Given we are expecting a General Election in the next year or so and skills is sure to be a big part of the government’s agenda whichever party ends up in power, it’s incumbent on AELP to be at the heart of the action, arguing for change that will benefit the skills system as a whole. As a result, we’re all really looking forward to working closely with Ben when he takes up the role next month.

Injecting more funding into the skills system is paramount

If one former opposition leader’s mantra was education, education, education, it’s clear that the priority in skills for any future government needs to be funding, funding, funding. We’re at a crucial juncture for the sector. There’s been a perfect storm of factors coming together at similar times to put real pressure on providers right across the country. Whether it’s the high inflation rates all businesses are suffering from, the cliff edge of AEB procurement outcomes, the sudden end of traineeships or the continued lack of timeliness in apprenticeship funding reviews, everyone is finding it tough right now.

That’s a message we have been pushing out over the summer through the Save Our Skills System campaign – and delegates made that clear at Conference. The strength of feeling that not enough is being done to stabilise the sector was clear for all to see in Manchester, but we still need to keeping shouting about it. During the Conference, we heard from Andrew Thomas, Director of Finance and Provider Market Oversight, Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) which identified a disconnect between what the ESFA have gathered on the financial health of the sector and the reality providers face day-to-day. There is clearly work to be done to get ESFA to understand the actual situation, and we will be treating this as a priority in our future discussions with them.

We have had some progress on functional skills, but we’re not there yet…

At last year’s Autumn Conference, our Chair promised that working with the DfE to sort out functional skills qualifications would be an AELP priority in the year ahead. Since then, we’ve all put in an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to shift the dial on FSQs. Most recently this has resulted in a commitment of investment to increase funding rates for crucial maths and English qualifications.

I am pleased that we now know that the increased FSQ rates will start in January 2024. In our early discussions with officials after the announcement at the Conservative Party Conference this could have been as late as August next year, so we were pleased Kate Ridley-Moy and her team at the DfE have worked hard to bring this extra investment forward.

However, it’s clear from the mood of the conference – and our general discussions with members – that there needs to be much more done on FSQs, particularly in terms of content and DfE’s wider policy approach. It was positive to hear Kate Ridley-Moy also share that apprenticeship outcomes are increasing, but if we are going to get anywhere near the stretched ambition of 67% by Autumn 2025, then addressing the issues with FSQs would enable that bigger step change towards that goal.

Flexing the levy seems inevitable but needs handling with care

In recent months it has become apparent that we’re now in a situation where it is when, not if, there will be reform of the Apprenticeship Levy system to introduce new flexibilities. That was clear from our conversations with politicians of all stripes at the recent party conferences we attended, and that was once again re-emphasised by Seema Malhotra, Labour MP and Shadow Skills Minister, in her video message to conference.

Seema reiterated Labour’s commitment to reform the Apprenticeship Levy into a ‘Skills and Growth Levy’ and although we agree that there are clearly ways in which the current apprenticeship system can be improved, this needs handling with care. In particular, we must ensure that – with 99.6% of the Levy being spent in FY21/22 – the introduction of flexibilities does not lead to SMEs not being able to access funding to develop their workforce. More broadly, it was positive to see Seema back our calls for a national skills strategy “after years of instability”, and to link skills to growth – something our own Skills Means Growth vision sets out.  We will continue to work with Seema and her team in the coming months to highlight the positive aspects of the levy.

Devolution is here to stay

There are common complaints both from employers and providers, including at last week’s conference that devolution is an added layer of bureaucracy (which is undoubtedly true), but it is here to stay, and if anything will go further, wider and deeper. As a result, it was great to hear from Sarah McLaughlin of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority who set out how they’ve managed to embrace devolved powers on skills in GM. Sarah’s defence of devolution was an interesting one arguing it is not a ‘land grab’ from central government, but about enabling the system to work smarter, and making sure all policy areas in a region are pulling in the same direction.

This may be the intention, but the jury is still out on whether that’s leading to an improved skills system. However, the political winds behind devolution are strong, and we can expect to see more Mayoral Combined Authorities rolled out in the coming months and years. It will be our collective jobs to take advantage of that and help the system evolve to make it more accessible and more workable for both employers and providers.

By Simon Ashworth, AELP’s Director of Policy

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