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The Skills Bill’s challenges for Independent Training Providers

Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)
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AELP set out with a really ambitious four-day online programme for its National Conference last week, sponsored by Learning Curve Group and NOCN, and on the feedback so far, it seems to have gone down very well.

All our keynote speakers without exception made really important contributions and I very much appreciated the contribution of all our sponsors, speakers, roundtable panellists, workshop presenters and session facilitators.

AELP Chairman Martin Dunford 

Martin Dunford 20Jul 100x100In his keynote address, AELP Chairman Martin Dunford talked about the Skills Bill and stressed that government objectives hadn’t changed that much over the past 20 years.

Social inclusion has always been in the mix in one way or another but now was the time for this government to get serious about it.

He made the point, which was echoed by others during the week, that ITPs are on the frontline on all programmes (not just apprenticeships) that move social mobility forward.  Our Vice-Chair Nicki Hay later referred to ITPs as ‘foot soldiers’ which seemed spot on.

Skills Minister Gillian Keegan

Gillian Keegan100x100Skills Minister Gillian Keegan in her address rightly paid tribute to the hard work of providers during the pandemic, and also supported our view that the levy should not be used for anything other than apprenticeships. It was also heartening to hear Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, express clear support for the notion of subsidising apprenticeship wages which Shadow Minister Toby Perkins had also supported the day before, and which of course has been a solid AELP position for some time.

Perhaps less impressively, Minister Keegan would not accept a widely held view that the white paper had paid too little attention to learning at lower levels, preferring instead to wait for the outcome of the level 3 and below consultation.  It was also interesting that she did not say very much about local skills improvement plans (LSIPs), and it was telling that when asked twice a simple question on whether funding will flow through LSIPs, she would not give a clear answer.  We hope that her ministerial colleague in the Lords might be more forthcoming during the debates on the Skills Bill.

Sue Pember

Sue Pember 20Sept 100x100During my roundtable with Sally Dicketts and Sue Pember, Sue (as a former senior government official) observed that she had seen a few planning initiatives in her time – none had really worked and she didn’t have much confidence that LSIPs would be any different.

If only LSIPs were just advisory bodies on local skills needs, because AELP’s concern is that central government might start channelling big sums of money through them despite the government being committed in the white paper to simplifying the myriad of adult funding pots.

On the Skills Bill as a whole, AELP briefed peers in advance of the second reading debate in the Lords on the 15th.

Our main concerns are:

  1. The proposed Local Skills Improvement Plans
  2. The ‘list of approved providers’ and
  3. The lack of measures to enforce the Baker Clause.

Querying the legal requirement to have professional indemnity insurance

In relation to the list, some have asked why AELP is querying the legal requirement to have professional indemnity insurance.  The fact is that as a whole, many of the clauses relating to the list appear to be just piling cost upon cost on ITP delivery without any consultation or rationale as to why they are needed – and even if they are, why it needs primary legislation to do it instead of simply ESFA regulation.

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Professional indemnity insurance is one example, and a possible fee to join the list (not required from colleges or some other types of providers) is another. The whole subject of the list just seems to be a poorly thought-through solution in search of other problems to resolve.

Ofsted’s concern that too many providers are still not delivering high quality apprenticeships 

Despite the widespread recognition of the hard work of providers during the pandemic, it would be wrong not to acknowledge Ofsted’s concern expressed during the conference that too many providers are still not delivering high quality apprenticeships.

The reasons for this are recognised and have been well explored before, but this still needs addressing and AELP will continue to play its full part in spreading best practice among members.

A couple of things were clearly on the minds of AELP’s members throughout the event:

1. Tension between Kickstart and traineeships urgently needs to be resolved 

Firstly, Jobcentre Plus advisors are focused on referrals to Kickstart and traineeship starts are suffering as a result.  Despite all the noise around employer commitments, there have only been just over 20,000 starts on the scheme since it was launched last September – politically that isn’t a good look for DWP, so naturally JCP are under some pressure here.

It’s no excuse of course and is yet another symptom of a lack of joined-up thinking between departments. If that very welcome extra traineeship money that has been made available isn’t to go to waste, this tension between the programmes urgently needs to be resolved.

2. Bootcamp goal-posts have been moved

Secondly, the Bootcamp bid winners are very unhappy with the terms and conditions now being imposed on them prior to contract signing. Feelings among the chosen providers are running high in relation to the recruitment of potential learners and the DfE’s plan for its researchers to randomly reject half of all eligible bootcamp applicants as part of a randomised control trial.

To us, it seems like the goal-posts have been moved since the procurement outcome was announced.

Even with a full exit from lockdown delayed again, the AELP National Conference was a timely opportunity to discuss how the sector can best support an economic recovery and debate the contents of the Skills Bill.

Both AELP and its members are going to be busier than ever over the next few months!

Jane Hickie is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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