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Four key areas we must address to ensure the skills agenda is delivered properly

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee
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42% increase in Skills Budget, and parity of esteem at last? 

At the Autumn Budget, the Chancellor committed to a skills revolution with a funding increase of 42% to be spent on increasing skills provision.

We know that our nation faces skills challenges from the fourth industrial revolution, an ageing workforce and the devastating impacts of COVID-19 so the prioritisation of the skills agenda and the funding increase is most welcome.

For too long, Further Education and skills have been the Cinderella of our education system – seen as the poor relation sat alongside traditional academic routes, despite their unique value in helping thousands of disadvantaged learners climb the ladder of opportunity.

It is worth remembering however, that Cinderella eventually became a member of the royal family, and we need to banish the two ugly sisters of snobbery around skills and under-funding.

Over the past ten years, funding per student aged 16 to 18 has fallen by 11% in real terms. Moreover, participation in adult skills and lifelong learning is at its lowest level in 23 years.

There are also long-standing problems with work-place training.

Employer-led training has dropped by half since the end of the 1990s and participation in adult skills and lifelong learning is at its lowest level in 23 years. Nine million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills, and six million adults are not qualified even to Level 2.

But things can change.

On Monday (15th November) the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons.

I welcome this important Bill but I believe there are four key things we must address to ensure the skills agenda is delivered properly:

1. Improve careers education and guidance for all students

First, we must take this opportunity to improve careers education and guidance for all students. Currently, the Bill would require schools to provide all pupils with two mandatory encounters with technical education providers during the years 8 to 11, with another in year 12 or 13.

But we must go further. According to the IPPR, just two in five schools were complying with the Baker Clause. In the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the Government outlined proposals to take “tougher formal action against non-compliance” with the Baker Clause. My Education Committee’s report, ‘The forgotten’, which looked at the under-performance of disadvantaged white working-class pupils, recommended that compliance with the Baker Clause be linked to Ofsted inspection outcomes, with schools not given a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating unless they comply with the Clause. Taking stronger action would demonstrate that the Government means business when it comes to careers education.

2. Help all adults get the education they need to access fulfilling jobs

Second, we must help all adults get the education they need to access fulfilling jobs. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee and the Lifelong Loan Entitlement are welcome, but the Government should also consider allocating more funding to those completing Level 2 qualifications with a mechanism included to ensure progression on to Level 3.

Levelling-up adult learning for the most disadvantaged is also critical. As my Committee’s report on adult skills recommended, we must rocket-boost community learning in every town and establish a long-term plan to introduce a skills tax credit to revitalise employer-led training.

3. More must be done to boost apprenticeships

 Third, more must be done to boost apprenticeships, from Level 2 through to degree and higher apprenticeships. Reforming the existing levy on employers in a strategic way to close the skills deficit and ensure that more young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will help people to access this opportunity.

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Readers may know that “degree apprenticeships” are my two favourite words in the English language. Students can earn while they learn and will have a skilled job at the end of their degree with no student debt hanging around their necks. The £800 million Diversity and Inclusion Fund spent by universities and the Office For Students should be re-booted to ensure that access and participation is prioritised towards students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And over the next decade, universities should work towards 50% of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships.

These opportunities must be extended to all learners. For example, in my Committee’s inquiry into prison education we have heard about the potential benefits of apprenticeships for prisoners, and I hope this is something that the Government will consider and introduce legislation to allow such apprenticeships to take place.

4. Make sure curriculum and qualifications provide skills for the world of work

Fourth, we must make sure that the curriculum and qualifications are there to give pupils the skills they need to enter the world of work.

Whenever I speak to employers and business leaders in my constituency, they say they want individuals with the knowledge required to do the job, but they also need to have strong skills, be good communicators, excellent problem-solvers and strong team players.

From Harlow to Huddersfield, local employers get the importance of skills. In towns like mine, there’s a strong vocational and skills culture: my constituents are proud of apprenticeships and skills, and what’s more, employers attach immense value on skills beyond academic qualifications. The Government’s own Employer Skills Survey reveals that academic qualifications are just one small part of today’s recruitment process. Employers across the country place the most value on technical, practical and so-called ‘soft’ skills.

Despite the name, these skills aren’t soft at all. Pupils need skills like resilience, financial education, oracy and teamwork to secure jobs and thrive in employment. In a recent survey of the UK labour market, looking at the data from 21 million job adverts, communication, planning and organisation skills were in the greatest demand from employers. In an increasingly digital world where AI is king, these skills will become even more important.

Qualification reform

The Government must ensure its important work on reforming Level 3 qualifications and introducing T-Levels does not detract from tackling issues for younger students and lower-level qualifications.

I welcome the announcement made by the Education Secretary at the start of the Bill’s debate to delay the funding decisions for BTECs for a further year to allow T-Levels the time to embed fully in the curriculum.

Education Datalab found that in 2015/16, young people who took BTECs were more likely to be in employment at age 22 and at that age were earning around £800 more a year than their peers taking A Levels. We know that these qualifications are particularly important to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It’s vital that until T-levels are both successful and embedded in the system, quality BTECs should remain for all students to access.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee

Finally, a key part of the Bill is called the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. ‘Lifetime’ should do what it says on the tin. So that means looking at the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). I would urge the Government to introduce Design Technology and Computer Science as part of the EBacc given the huge decline we have seen in the take up of these subjects.

Having said all this, I do strongly welcome this Bill and am excited that this will be the beginning of building the skills and apprenticeships nation.

I look forward to working with Government Ministers constructively as this Bill makes its way through this House.

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

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