From education to employment

Levelling up must survive a change of Prime Minister- the skills sector is depending on it

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

The firing gun has been sounded for the Conservative Party leadership campaign. By 5 September, we will know which MP will succeed Boris Johnson. Whoever he or she may be, I hope our new Prime Minister remembers the significant manifesto pledges that their party made during the last General Election to “level up” Britain.

We should be accelerating – not abandoning – levelling up

A new Prime Minister will have their own priorities to champion. While the new leadership runners and riders have talked extensively about spending cuts, there is a gaping absence of any reference to or commitment to Levelling Up. This is a huge concern for the FE sector. As we have heard from the government over and over in recent months, Levelling Up is intrinsically linked to improving social mobility across the nation, boosting investment and participation in a range of skills and employability programmes.

Earlier this year, the Levelling Up white paper set out details on plans to tackle regional and local inequalities. The paper put skills, schools and families are at the heart of plans to improve public services and level up left behind areas – this is long overdue. However, reducing regional inequalities that have built up over the course of decades cannot be reversed overnight. Improving careers information, advice and guidance; reaping the benefits from sustained investment in adult education, and ensuring the apprenticeship programme is on sustainable footing, with good access for small-medium-sized will all take time. Levelling Up cannot just be a slogan which disappears following a change of Prime Minister. The agenda needs long-term commitment and investment.

There is a more immediate prize to be won through Levelling Up too. All the evidence points to the fact that increased productivity leads to higher wages and upskilling our workforce is a critical element of Levelling Up so it should also be part of the plan to help ease the cost-of-living crisis. A recent report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that students in poverty – defined as those eligible for free school meals for 80% of their time at school – were 1.6 GCSE grades behind their classmates in 2020. The largest grade gaps in 2020 were seen in across Northern boroughs including Knowsley (1.76 grades), Blackpool (1.69), Salford (1.66) and Sheffield (1.61) – areas that would be targeted through the Levelling Up agenda.

Inevitably, the onus is passed on to the FE sector to support those young people who have been let down in compulsory education. There is, of course, a huge role for the FE sector to play in supporting those people, but this work needs to be resourced properly. Functional skills are still very poorly funded within a work-based setting – with funding rates still set at 2014 levels. This is clearly not sustainable and Levelling Up is an opportunity to put that right.

Stability and sustainability for the skills sector is vital

Outside of the leadership election, the wheels of government must keep turning. There are big, immediate challenges facing the skills sector that cannot be deferred until later in the autumn. Most pressingly, we need to ensure that providers can continue to deliver the high-quality skills training that our learners and employers need. I recently wrote for FE News about the impact of rising costs on the sector. High inflation rates that threaten to wipe out £850m of skills funding will have a huge impact. We desperately need a skills system where the amount providers receive for each qualification actually reflects the true cost of delivery. This means that all skills programmes should have their funding rates reviewed and adjusted on at least an annual basis.

Many of the leadership candidates have talked about the importance of trust in our politicians. All of those were elected on the back of the 2019 Conservative Party General Election manifesto, which promised to invest in skills and ‘level up’ Britain. If we’re serious about building a society where everybody can make the most of their talents and get into good work- we must continue to invest in skills, with a long-term plan in place to reduce the regional inequalities that are holding our country back. My message to the government is clear: now is not the time to abandon investing in the people and areas that need it most.

For however long the new ministers are in post, AELP and our members will engage and support government ambitions for a world-class skills sector – but we need their help too.

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

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