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The Augar Review brings a wave of welcome recommendations: but without action it’s just an FE wishlist

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, Group Director, City & Guilds Group
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Last week the much anticipated Augar Review made waves in national media for its recommendations on changes to tuition fees. But the 200 (or so) page report – commissioned by Theresa May to investigate a malfunctioning post 18 education system – goes much further than the general public realise.

Painting a picture of a demoralised FE sector and a system that fails to foster social mobility, while laying out a list of recommendations and improvements for the Government to invigorate the education and skills sectors, the report offers a glimpse of a brighter future for the people living, working and learning in the UK – and for the economy.

It’s no coincidence that this review has been carried out at a time when UK Plc is suffering from growing skills gaps and stagnant productivity rates. As we face socioeconomic uncertainty, upskilling domestic talent is, and will continue to be, a key driver of our economy.

However, with the current PM on her way out, as yet we have no promise that any of this considered advice will be taken on board by the new Government.

With all the Government’s energy going into sorting out Brexit and developing new trade links, it’s easy to see this review getting swept under the carpet and yet failure to act on the recommendations would be a huge wasted opportunity at a time when we so urgently need to increase skills across the board.

A strong base for progression

According to the report, by the age of 25, 14% of people in England have not achieved a Level 2 qualification, and a further 23% have done so but not progressed beyond it (DfE data).

Although we are seeing more people now achieve this level at age 16-18 through GCSEs, worryingly the overall number of full Level 2 learners aged 19 and above has been dropping.

We’ve witnessed this fall in Level 2 and 3 qualifications reflected in apprenticeship starts too, with the new frameworks prioritising higher level qualifications. While we recognise the need to provide high level technical qualifications that sit alongside academic ones and welcome the Government’s focus on increasing the number of these available, that must not come at the expense of level 2 qualifications.

In many industries such as hospitality and catering and retail a level 2 qualification is needed as the entry point and removing these would severely impact these industries’ ability to recruit. 

It’s also vital that in reducing the number of level 2 qualifications, the Government doesn’t remove the bottom rungs of the ladder for people.

Not everyone will be able to step straight into a level 3 and above qualifications and, as long as they provide progression opportunities, high quality level 2 qualifications are an important step into work and high skills for many people. These are not only suitable for young people as well; they are still a viable – and valuable – option for progression for people of all ages, providing them with sought-after skills and capabilities.

These qualifications help individuals to gain better employment and earn a higher wage, while simultaneously helping businesses and economies plug much needed skills gaps. The report recommends restoring adults’ entitlement to free tuition for their first full Level 2 and 3 qualifications as well as removing the current age cap so that a first ‘full’ Level 3 is available free to all learners whether they are in work or not. If implemented, these recommendations would be transformative to help people of all ages access valuable education across the UK.

Learning throughout life’s ups and downs

At this time of rapid technological change, the skills used by today’s workforce are becoming obsolete quicker than ever before. A recent study from City & Guilds Group found that less than half of employees (46%) are getting enough help and support from their employer to develop the workplace skills they will need in the future.

Meanwhile, with people working later in their lives and ready to jump from one career to another, the need for continual learning is becoming ever more relevant to workers.

It’s key that people have the chance to develop their skills throughout their careers – for the good of both individuals and employers.

Introducing a new system that finances investment in education and skills throughout a person’s lifetime – and offers flexibility in building those skills – would be incredibly beneficial.

This is why the Augar report’s recommendation to introduce a lifelong learning loan allowance, to facilitate investment in higher-level learning at any point in an individual’s career and offer them the opportunity to make training available in flexible modules, would be a significant step towards futureproofing the UK skills pipeline.

Banging the drum for quality apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have seen a massive overhaul in the past few years, but it has been a bumpy road as employers and apprentices struggle to get to grips with the new system and starts have fallen woefully short of Government targets. So it was no surprise to see further apprenticeship reforms recommended in the report.

The Augar review has identified that although apprenticeships have huge potential to help solve the productivity crisis, this can only happen if providers are delivering high quality training.

The recommendations to provide learners with better wage return information and strengthen Ofsted’s role – and thus the quality of providers – could help to ensure apprenticeships in the UK deliver real value to learners and the economy.

Here at City & Guilds Group we are acutely aware of the challenges around quality of training, and the report’s advice chimes with recent recommendations in our Making Apprenticeships Work report to introduce a Common Quality Framework for apprenticeships.

By ensuring apprenticeships are of the highest quality, we can help people and businesses realise that apprenticeships can form the basis of a career pathway option like any other, sustainable and relevant in the long term.

If not now, when?

The UK needs to improve education and skills to help make sure people get the tools they need to get a job and do it well, at the same time helping businesses plug skills gaps and boost the wider economy.

But without seeing action from Government we can’t expect change. We can’t start planning for a new funding set up and a whole network of FE colleges, and we can’t promise opportunities for level 2, level 3 qualifications, lifelong learning or high-quality apprenticeships. And, what is most concerning is that without any change from current policy our education offering for over 18s will continue to fall short of what is needed.

When it forms, the new Government is likely to be heavily focussed on Brexit politics, rather than education policy – and already I am one of the many people worried that the new Prime Minister will overlook what could be a significant opportunity for FE, UK citizens and the economy.

We implore the new PM to do the right thing!

Not only should they take notice of this major review and report, but they should take action too.

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, Group Director, City & Guilds Group

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