From education to employment

We Need to Make it Easier for Businesses to Invest in Adult Skills

Gillian Keegan, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships in England.

Last week (19 Jun) @EducationGovUK announced a billion pound funding for a COVID19 catch-up plan to tackle the impact of lost teaching time.

Children in England are set to benefit from a £1 billion Covid “catch-up” package to directly tackle the impact of lost teaching time, but despite promising to support young people, it fails to cover more than two thirds of England’s 16 to 18 year olds.

To find out what happened Tom Bewick spoke to Gillian Keegan, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships in England, for the latest episode of #SkillsWorldLIVE:

The adult skills agenda

Obviously, everything’s happening in super quick time, but I think it’s clear that the initial focus was really on schools, and that’s because we’ve had much more challenge obviously with schools, in terms of online learning and the picture is a bit more mixed.

Whereas in the FE sector for sure, they’ve done an amazing job of still trying to deliver as much learning as possible online, and probably the standout sector with that regard. I think there was a bit of discussion, and confusion, but the initial focus was on schools, but we do recognise very much so, that there is a need for the sector.

In particular Colleges have been right to highlight to me the concern they have for the cohort that are going to join in September. Particularly those that have missed out on the last six months of school, in particular those ones that have just completed their GCSEs.

We know we have a challenge with every new cohort with English and maths, for some young people. That is not going to have got better. it’s actually probably amplified that challenge. We understand and recognise that need, and we are still focused on trying to come up with something for the sector.

Is FE the neglected middle child in the education system squeezed between schools and universities?

I think that sentiment of FE not being enough of a focus in the past has actually been right. But that has been addressed, and it’s certainly a big focus now. It was of the conservative manifesto, and it is the focus in government, and across government departments. We have record investment in the sector, with an increase which is bigger than schools actually got for this year, but after a long time where it wasn’t invested in.

We’ve now got capital spend programs, we’ve obviously got T levels, we’ve got institutes of technology. we know obviously the base rate has improved and then we’ve got the National Skills Fund, billions of pounds, three billion pounds, which has been announced as well. So, we are actually receiving a lot more investment than we’ve had, and that’s good to see.

Do you agree with the Social Mobility Commission’s recommendations that there should be more of a focus on getting disadvantaged people into apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships are a social mobility driver, and I completely agree. Indeed, it’s my own story, that it changed my life, my apprenticeship that I started at 16. So I 100 percent see the power of them, and it’s always been a great way for people to get on, where you’ve had barriers to overcome that a lot of other people don’t have, I think it’s always been really good at doing that.

Now, I think there’s two things there. One is there is no point in doing a low-quality apprenticeship. It might make people feel happy with looking at a number, but it doesn’t give you the experience you need to have valuable transferable skills, that the employer values.

What we have done has made sure that anybody who’s doing an apprenticeship has a high-quality experience. That was important for the employers, because the branding that the employers thought there were some examples where actually it wasn’t a quality apprenticeship at all.

Now, if that [Apprenticeships and social mobility] report therefore tells you that people who have more disadvantage were being given the opportunity to do low quality courses more than others, then that that doesn’t fill me with any hope either. That’s not what I want to be happening, it has to be a good quality experience.

I’ve heard so many young people who’ve said to me, “I did a low level apprenticeship, it was admin, and actually all I did was learn to fill in one form, it was rubbish.”

We really have to make sure that that is not the apprenticeship experience. They need a good quality experience, and I’ll continue focus on that. That’s the reason I’m in politics, I’ll continue to focus on that until everybody’s had the opportunity to do a high-quality apprenticeship.

Are we trying to put too much on the apprenticeship brand as being the universal answer to all the kind of ills we’ve got around youth labour market participation?

What’s great about apprenticeships, and particularly the focus that we’ve had in the more recent years, has been it actually is a very close collaboration between a large number of employers, and the Department for Education. That’s a very helpful approach, I think, it’s a very fast-moving environment.

We’re in the middle of the coronavirus, and the impact we have seen it have, almost overnight, on some sectors that will not recover to the same degree, it’s basically accelerated a decline and a shift. Things like that can happen, particularly in the digital world very, very, very quickly. So, people have to be learning the latest skills, and a good way of doing that is that collaboration between the business, the job and the study.

What will you be doing to increase adult and community learning opportunities, as we try to recover from this pandemic?

There’s a couple of things. The first is we’ve had a more a more focused approach. So really, it’s been very much focused on level two English and maths, and we’ve added digital skills, that’s going to be available now as of August. We’ve also added the functional skills, so functional elements of English and maths to help in terms of context, to improve the offer for adults in particular. That’s where we’ve actually been focused.

We’ve also obviously provided the future digital inclusion, which don’t link to a qualification, but really do remove the barriers for people. We’ve had 1.4 Million people who’ve been able to participate in that. We’ve just been much more focused. Once you get these basic skills, you can open up a lot more opportunity, and that’s where the focus has been.

We’ve also had things like the skills toolkit that’s available online. That’s got a number of ‘introduction up to advanced’ courses that are freely available. I think the opportunity to change and shift how we deliver things, if people are comfortable digitally, is so much greater. It’s really a game changer.

The National Skills Fund will be consulting on that, when everybody’s back and working and ready to engage, to figure out how we’re going to focus that money. We spend £1.34 Billion pounds and we’ve got a huge investment going forward in the National Skills Fund, so I think it’s an opportunity for us to shape it.

It’s always incredibly difficult to know what works, and what gives a real return to the individual. That’s what we’ve got to get better as a sector, really making the choices of the things that turn the dial most for learners.

How can we empower a proper lifelong learning strategy in this country?

Certainly, we want to empower lifelong learning. We recognise, working with my colleagues across government as well in BEIS and the DWP, there are going to be shifts, we do have future skills.

We’ve been talking this week about the move in energy from the oil and gas sector to renewables, and how we upskill people to be able to build on skills they’ve got, but make them relevant for a new environment. Very much we’re focused on solving those problems and helping solve those problems.

How exactly it’s going to look, obviously, that will be a matter that will come up in the consultation. I’m just really interested in “What Works?” I look at it very much from the perspective of the learner and the employer.

Two thirds of today’s adults in the workforce will still be there in the year 2030. How can we get more employers to invest more in workforce skills and training?

I think what employers need is confidence of what to invest in. What we do know, and this is another subject of consultation, we’ve got I think it’s something like 12000 qualifications at level three, another, I think 4000 or so at level four. It’s just too crowded. What we do is we make it very difficult for people to really focus and be confident that if they do X qualification it will lead them to a good career. We need to make sure it is much more clearly understood.

The German system, that’s much better developed and that way of working, that partnership with employers has got probably a longer history. I feel very confident though, if you look at the work that’s been done with T levels, if you look at the collaboration and the improvements in quality of apprenticeships, and all that work, now we’ve got the skills and productivity boards as well coming on stream.

I do feel very confident that we’ve got all the solid foundations to really build that, and businesses will invest. I’ve said to many people in the DfE, I take my own journey, the DfE gave me a comprehensive school experience, and everything else I’ve done ever since has been via business. They’ve invested in me, including executive education, including Master of Science, all of those things.

Businesses will invest if they’re confident that they’re going to get something back from it. What we’ve done is made it difficult for them, so we need to make it easy for them.

When will adult education centres be allowed to reopen?

There’s very much a call from the sector. It’s funny, some sectors are reluctant to go back at, Adult Education can’t wait to go back, and is pushing, “Can we go back? We know how we’re going to do this”.

We’re very, very conscious of that. Clearly, they’ve also done a brilliant job of moving online. I went for a virtual visit to City Lit early on, it’s amazing, actually, what they can do online. Even with courses that you would thought would have been very challenging to deliver online, but necessity is the mother of all invention, as they say, and they certainly have been inventive. We’re very conscious of that.

The challenge, and I’ll be very honest, the challenge is really about the public transport systems. Obviously, we’re trying to get people to go back to work, they absolutely need to get back into the workplace. We’re trying to get people, young people back to school and colleges back and all of that. The challenge, a lot of the bottlenecks, are around public transport.

Sometimes the policies, looking at it, you might think, well if I can go here, why can’t I go there? The problem is just how everybody gets there. That’s what the governments are wrestling with. Of course, they’ll follow the medical evidence and science, and they keep it under review, all kinds of things to make things easier.

I hope we can get more flexibility for more people to go back in the near future. Right now, there’s flexibility for those up to the age of 19 to be able to get some access to face to face. But clearly, everybody is very keen to get back online.

Things like the skills toolkit have been an amazing success. I think it is because a lot of people are at home and their thirst for knowledge and learning, their understanding that they’re going to need to have the skills to offer to the workplace is still there. As soon as we possibly can, we will get the sector back. It’s a very different problem some of my colleagues are wrestling with, which is actually that they can’t wait to go back.

Gillian Keegan, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships in England

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