From education to employment

Meeting future skills needs – a journey without a map?

Paul Kessell-Holland, National Head of Curriculum Design Projects at the ETF

The Skills White Paper, significant subsequent commentary from within Government and particularly the welcome statements in support of skills education from the new Secretary of State, Gillian Keegan, should give the sector cause for hope. Hope that it has at long last been noticed that the FE and training sector is the most effective learning route into work for both young people and adults, and hope that we can be one of the major answers to the challenges of meeting the productivity puzzle of low growth and skill shortages post-Brexit.

What will be done to address this, however, is a little more of a mystery. There is no immediate sign of funding change despite some improvement in the schools’ landscape, and while there is a flurry of reform from level 2 to 5 across almost all vocational and technical education, these may not significantly shift the dial unless we meet some fundamental needs – ones that the sector has struggled with for years.

The recent FE and Training Conversation survey

In the recent FE and Training Conversation survey carried out by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), 81% of staff said whilst making a difference to learners and changing lives was the most rewarding aspect of their role, there are widespread challenges that staff working across the sector are grappling with. The burden of paper work and poor administrative systems (23%) ranked the top frustration of those working in the sector, followed by changes in the FE landscape (18%) and lack of funding (14%). When asked what was the most important challenge facing the sector right now, 25% of respondents said funding, with challenges in recruitment coming next at 18%.

What do these results show?

There are clearly structural worries and challenges that we need to pay attention to. Providers across the country are reporting significant staffing challenges across almost all subject areas, despite some major government investments in recruitment initiatives (ETF’s ground-breaking Taking Teaching Further programme, for example).

There remains a major question mark over whether, if we aspire to deliver training for the future, we will manage to recruit staff who work in emerging fields to teach the skills of tomorrow. Almost everyone in the sector wants to change lives, but does everyone have the skills to change them in the ways the government and employers think they need to change? If there are no staff in the workshop, no teachers in the classroom, what then?

There is something else to consider here. As I alluded to in a piece earlier this year, much of government rhetoric and even legislation in skills education is currently trying to ‘firm up’ things that the sector already does. Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) are a good case in point, where many providers have for years already planned delivery strategically with employers and local authorities, including jointly planned curriculum delivery with competitor providers.

Legislate if you wish, but the best provision is already way ahead of the curve. A job for life is a thing of the past, and current expectations show most workers of today will have at least three portfolio careers in their lifetimes. If we train learners of today for jobs of tomorrow, and only think three to five years ahead, they will be back in college when tomorrow’s industry becomes yesterday’s technology. We do still have analogue phone lines, we are still laying fibre cables, but if we move entirely to 5g, 6g, 24g wireless technology, what do we do with cabling engineers?

While training to meet the skills gaps, we cannot settle on a production line mentality of ‘hatching’ new workers to feed employers’ machines, nor the industrial sectors’ wishes. We need problem solvers and critical thinkers but this is more than a simplified list of tools needed for today’s tasks. Instead we need to focus on the person and who they will be in society in a much broader way.

We need to be aware that unlocking greater funding for the sector can have unexpected consequences

There was only one note of caution sounded by the Secretary of State in a recent address at the AoC conference. She referenced ensuring delivery was of the highest quality, the greatest impact. While it is laudable that unlocking greater funding for the sector is linked to education provision meeting the right needs of learners and society, in the right ways, we need to be aware that this can have unexpected consequences. For example, young people on drama / performance courses rarely enter the media or theatrical professions. Even if they all had the talent to succeed, we train far too many.

However, national datasets show these students progressing to Higher Education, to employment, and rarely falling out of economic activity in their life. They bring a set of invaluable skills: they can communicate; they can problem solve; and they can work in a team. We set some measurements at our peril, and we need to tread carefully to ensure that we support all learners, with all interests. Whilst there is a balance to be struck, relentless focus on technical skills for the future would also shut down courses in stone masonry or stained glass, both of which are thriving heritage skills in desperate need of new recruits.

We also need to celebrate what is already being done across FE and training providers

With that in mind, we need to celebrate and retain much of what is already being done across FE and training providers. The 81% of staff who care so deeply about transforming lives, do so in difficult, ever-changing circumstances. The more we direct them to deliver with precision to meet even more moving targets, and the less we help them to do that, the fewer of them will feel they can still make that transformative difference.

Our greatest strength as a sector has always been in changing lives and changing futures. As a society we are hurtling through political, societal and economic change at breakneck speed, often without a detailed map. We do need to change, and we need to improve but we also need to think carefully before we do so, and understand what changes we need, what improvements we want – or we risk losing the greatest asset we have – our passion to share what we know to empower the next generation.

By Dr Paul Kessell-Holland, Deputy Director of New Programme Design and Development, ETF

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