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Transforming the foundations of the skills system: Radical change requires commitment

Simon Kelleher, Head of Education and Skills at Policy Connect
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The future for FE and 5 ways to fully realise the PM’s “Lifetime Skills Guarantee” vision 

In Tuesday’s speech from Exeter College, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the Government’s plans to transform our training and skills system. The speech outlined the problem of supply and demand imbalances in the post-18 education and training systems, and set out five proposals to reform the funding system and end the bias towards academic education.

While some of the proposals repackaged existing policies, notably on capital funding and unspent levy funds, the new announcements on the Lifetime Guarantee and unifying the funding system between FE and HE courses signals a new approach to our skills system. We may therefore expect to see some bold reforms in the FE White Paper along the lines of our recommendations in our England’s Skills Puzzle report earlier this year.

We would hope that the entitlements to level three training and four years’ worth of post-18 funding demonstrate a commitment to greater choice in tertiary education and to the importance of lifelong learning. Significant investment will be needed to reverse the long term decline in adult learning, but the Guarantee represents an important step towards reassessing the value of adult learning.

Creating a more unified funding system, and enabling FE providers and learners to benefit from access to the HE system of finance and support, is also an important step towards creating greater parity of esteem between different education pathways and one that we called for in our Skills Puzzle report. Similarly, the greater flexibilities around apprenticeships could both help apprentices in the short term and shift us towards the flexible system we called for in our Degree Apprenticeships report.

The FE White Paper will in addition need to set out wider underpinning reforms to ensure that these measures deliver the systematic change our skills systems needs if it is to aid recovery and adapt to the demands of the fourth industrial revolution.

1. Greater strategic direction and accountability

First, the skills system requires greater strategic direction and accountability. The FE White Paper must indicate how government intends to better link provision to major national agendas, around levelling-up, industrial strategy and Net-Zero. As advocated in our England’s Skills Puzzle report, the Skills and Productivity Board needs to play a greater role in independently monitoring the government’s progress and stabilising the damaging policy churn that has bedevilled the sector.    

2. Engage employers at both a sectoral and local level

To boost national productivity we will need to become better at consistently engaging employers at both a sectoral and local level. Our recent roundtables with the Learning and Work Institute, on the English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper, underlined the importance of this. To help people, employers and communities in the challenging times ahead, the skills and employment agendas must be brought together at the local level. We will need to work in partnership to articulate skills needs and make demand side interventions to improve job quality.

3. New funding mechanisms

In addition, for the Lifetime Guarantee to be sustainable over our longer working lives, funding levels may need to be increased or new mechanisms developed, such as Personal Learning Accounts, for co-investment between individuals, employers and government.

4. Invest in staff retention and recruitment

On the supply side, it is clear that we need to invest in staff retention and recruitment, and build collaborative local systems, which compete on quality and collaborate to meet employer need. Providing three year funding settlements instead of volatile one year cycles, and introducing incentives to cooperate, such as collaboration fund, will be an important part of this.

5. Value the important role of careers advice and guidance

Finally, there was a critical missing piece of the jigsaw in the Prime Minister’s speech. This is the important role that careers advice and guidance will play in informing people of the breadth of pathways open to them. Improving access via funding reform is one part of the equation, but demonstrating the benefits of an apprenticeship or HND is the other.

The Skills Commission is currently investigating this piece of the skills puzzle with Nicola Richards MP, Lord Jim Knight and Dr Siobhan Neary. We will be feeding our initial findings into the DfE as they develop the FE whitepaper and will publish our recommendations in the New Year.

Simon Kelleher, Head of Education and Skills at Policy Connect

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