In the second of five exclusive articles for FE News exploring AELP’s Skills Means Growth vision for a sustainable skills system, Paul Warner outlines how he thinks we should be promoting and enabling greater learner choice.
All of us in the skills sector are in the business of empowering learners, whether that is to begin, develop or change careers or achieve personal growth. Now it is time to go one step further and properly embed the principle of promoting and enabling greater learner choice throughout our employer-led skills system.
This call stems from a radical yet simple insight. Every individual is unique, with different interests, strengths, aspirations, and timelines. It surely follows that a one-size-fits-all approach to skills development will fall short.
The ‘ladder of opportunity’
The ‘ladder of opportunity’ is a common metaphor, a favourite of the current Skills Minister, Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP. It is a useful tool to think about how a joined-up skills offer can allow learners to reach new heights. However, it is a simplified model, and doesn’t reflect the unpredictability of life, individual circumstances and a fluctuating job market. A more appropriate analogy might be snakes and ladders where not every step will always mean going higher. For some learners sideways or backwards may also be completely valid moves at different points in their life.
That’s why greater learner choice is one of AELP’s key policy principles, and why we called for it in our “Skills Means Growth” document which we released in September.
There have been positive steps in the direction of greater learner choice. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) puts more power in the hands of learners, giving them access to finance to study qualifications from levels 4-6 – AELP believes that this will firmly put the adult learner at the centre of a demand-led approach to lifelong learning. However, while the principle is a welcome one, the LLE stops just short of a truly radical policy for all. It is missing the first step on the ladder of opportunity, the ability to access level 2/3 qualifications.
In England and Wales, 31.6% of adults do not have a level 3 qualification. These people, the most in need of a radical and flexible skills policy, are shut out of the LLE, and in many cases may therefore be shut out of high-quality employment. Of course, I recognise there are funded programmes for level 3, but availability and choice are limited. If skills policy should prioritise anyone, it should be those it can most help.
Putting the foundations in for a greater leaner choice
One way to empower learners would be a simple extension of the lifelong learner skills accounts, with access to learning at all levels and regions. This would support learners in areas where Adult Education Budget or Free Courses for Jobs funding is sparse.
There are however some foundations that would need to be in place for greater learner choice to have maximum impact and protect the learner. First, it would require a system that treats all types of providers with parity. This means giving learners equal access to colleges, universities and independent training providers. Under the Lifelong Learning Bill, independent training providers are likely to have access to a third route for Office for Students (OfS) registration. However, this transition in regulation has been delayed until 2027. Independent training providers, who are ready, must be able to secure OfS registration as soon as possible to give learners maximum choice under the entitlement.
A greater need for careers advice
With greater learner choice also comes a greater need for strong, independent career advice. We know that the Baker Clause requires schools to give equal credence to apprenticeships as they do higher education through multiple “meaningful” interactions, but there is a widely recognised need to go further. To achieve this there is a need for high-quality dedicated careers specialists not only at university level but all through the education system at every level. This is not a dig at the work teachers are doing to fill the void, but careers guidance should treat technical pathways equally to academic pathways, and this may require a separate professionalised careers service.
Protecting learner choice in the era of devolution
Finally, we need to protect learner choice in the era of devolution. A common framework for skills commissioning across all devolved areas would make it easier for providers to deliver skills provision in more devolved areas. This would help avoid a postcode lottery for learners and enable truly informed choices to be made.
Skills policy should empower learners in all circumstances, giving them greater control and putting them in the driving seat of their own skills journey. Throughout the skills sector we have the experience and knowledge to empower learners, it’s time to give us the tools to get to work.
By Paul Warner, AELP’s Director of Strategy and Business Development
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