From education to employment

True levelling up needs every young person to get the education and training that maximises their talent

David Hughes, AoC

Michael Gove is a man on a mission, well 12 missions to be precise. All grand-sounding and worthy, all very difficult to argue with. In education he wants to see every child achieve better literacy and numeracy by age 11 and thousands more people completing high quality skills training every year. They both sound great and ambitions like that are certainly things colleges would want to get behind.

The problems start though when you look for how this will all be achieved and what resources will be made available to deliver. On both counts the white paper is vague.

No evidence at all that elite institutions level-up left behind communities

Take the proposal for establishing new elite sixth forms, which are aimed at areas “where there is limited provision to ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers.” At best this might offer a leg up for a few young people rather than levelling up for everyone because there is no evidence at all that elite institutions level-up left behind communities.

True levelling up needs every young person at this critical stage to get the education and training that inspires them, motivates them, opens their eyes to the opportunities and maximises their talent etc, not just the chosen few. That needs a level of funding which is sadly lacking – the IFS analysis that even with the increased investment announced in last year’s spending review, 16 to 18 funding will remain 10% less than 2010 levels in 2024/25.

It’s not just about funding though. The proposed new elite sixth forms would completely undermine one of the other missions of the white paper to ‘restore local pride’ – who will be proud of their school sixth form, college or training provider if it is decided that they are not good enough for the ‘elite’ and that a new institution is needed? What does that say about the young people who remain in the existing provision, or about the staff and leadership of those institutions?

The adult skills proposals bring nothing new to the table

Elsewhere, the adult skills proposals bring nothing new to the table. The addition of 200,000 training places by 2030 replaces about a quarter of the places lost in the 2010s when funding cuts were so deep. Sadly, the funding per adult learner has not increased with inflation for over a decade and is not set to rise for the next 3 years either.

A less exciting, but more purposeful proposal in the white paper would have been to address that, because it impacts on every one of the learners supported. Instead, we get more focus on small programmes for ‘thousands of people’ – Bootcamps, Institutes of Technology and supported internships for instance which are vital and good parts of the system which need to be supported. But again, they will offer a leg up for some, rather than levelling up for everyone. Getting approval for big long-term multi-year spending commitments is far harder than smaller individual pots of money to fund projects with a start and finish line. But that’s what today’s white paper needed to achieve to have the impact the government desires. From the looks of things, it’s fallen short.

Are there missed opportunities for being more joined up?

The white paper also seems to miss many opportunities for more joining-up, particularly at national level. Monday’s announcement of investment in new housing, for instance, seemed devoid of any cohesion with the skills investment needed for the builders, nor did it seem to include a game-changing commitment to net zero housing which would have been exciting. Instead, the joining-up job is going to be devolved to elected mayors, bringing all of these missions together. That feels like a big ask and avoids the responsibility of connecting Whitehall rules, policies and funding.

I imagine that most college leaders will initially be angry about some of this but will get on and do what they do best – make the most of the opportunities, focus on students and deliver great learning to everyone. That mission will remain, whatever government might say.

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC)

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  1. A very well argued piece. The Fe & Skills sector has been bombarded with piecemeal initiatives, and more of the same will compound the problems this has created – maddening bureaucracy, uneven and fragmented delivery on the ground and chronic short-termism. The White Paper includes a welcome recognition of the vital need to “strengthen the national network of further education” but the very welcome focus on a long term, decades long strategy is at odds with the recycled bits and pieces initiatives on post-16. The suggestion we need new 6th forms is, frankly, plain daft! We need DFE to match the ambition in this paper by committing to long term funding and investment goals.