From education to employment

This year has been turbulent. The sector must stick together to meet the challenges of 2023.

Jane Hickie, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

This is my final message of the year. 2022 is a year that has been fraught with challenges for the skills sector. Despite all of this, and with your support, AELP has been able to secure some really positive wins on your behalf. I would love to be able to say that 2023 will be easier but there is no doubt, it will not be a smooth ride for any of us. You will want the government to prioritise putting the sector on a sustainable footing, as we face further uncertainty and continued rising costs. I truly believe that if we work together as a whole sector, putting learners first, we can succeed in minimising the impact of those challenges.

Before I outline my thoughts on the year just gone, I want to pay tribute to the hard work of Martin Dunford OBE who stood down as AELP Chair in February. Martin was a founding member of AELP all those years ago – and his relentless commitment to the organisation has been incredible to witness. We wish him all the best for the future. Martin, has been succeeded by Nichola Hay MBE. Nicki’s goal is to drive a modern, forward thinking and collaborative organisation. It has been an absolute pleasure to work alongside her to achieve that ambition – her passion and insight mean she’s a real asset in supporting the work we do.

Rising costs and political turmoil

We started 2022 with cautious optimism. Although we were recovering from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, which seems like an age ago, it was clear the government had skills high on the agenda for the recovery. Yet the last 12 months have been dogged by the impact of inflation and political instability.

I don’t think at the start of the year any of us expected to see the appointment of three Prime Ministers and five Secretaries of State for Education! That political turmoil has made it really difficult at times to have any kind of meaningful engagement with decision-makers and, to be fair to them, has made life tricky for officials too! With inflation rates spiralling, we’ve really needed more dialogue on how to support learners and providers at this really difficult time.

There are, however, reasons to be cheerful. With Gillian Keegan in place as Education Secretary, and Robert Halfon as Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, I’m hoping we’re in a new era of stability, with a renewed focus in skills.

Winning for our members

Despite the tough backdrop, we have seen a number of success stories over the last year and we’ve produced a short video of some of the highlights. From funding, to flexibilities, we know these measures have supported learners, employers and providers to thrive.

Alongside these policy wins, AELP have been delighted to introduce new conferences – ED&I, Green Skills and DfE/AELP streamlining – bringing the total number we delivered this year to eight. These are all important because they are free to you, and we have tried to diversify the offer to make sure that we are providing the information and resources you need to deliver day to day.

We’ve also supported the sector with high-quality research and analysis. The survey data we’ve produced around how rising costs are impacting providers has, without doubt, gone some way to persuading officials to bring forward support measures.

I’m also really proud of our ‘Access to the Future’ report on level 2 and below qualifications that we launched in parliament in October – as well as our joint report with ERSA/Shaw Trust, ‘Hiding the Join’ which looked at how skills and employability provision can work better alongside each other. Throughout the year, our members have responded brilliantly to requests to provide us with information to help inform our research. My personal thanks to you all.

Looking ahead to 2023

Knowing that 2023 will be a challenge for us all, we need the DfE and IfATE to speed up the process of reviewing funding rates. The recent cold snap has seen us all turn the heating on a little bit higher, and for a little bit longer. Training providers will be doing the same in their premises too – and despite government support to help with higher fuel bills, rising costs are going to have a real impact next year. The temporary uplift announced at our Autumn Conference will be of help to some providers and employers in certain sectors, but we need a clearer, balanced approach to ensure that funding rates match the cost of delivery across the board.

The cost-of-living crisis is also putting real pressure on providers efforts to recruit and retain members of staff. You are increasingly reporting to us that you are struggling to replace and keep employees – often seeing staff returning to industry, drawn by the opportunity to earn more money there. We will all need to find ways to make the FE sector an attractive proposition for potential staff – and we will continue to work closely with the DfE to promote their marketing campaigns such as Teach in FE. We can’t escape the fact that pay is a big part of that though – which is why ensuring providers receive fair funding rates is so important.

Social mobility will remain high on the agenda too. The proposed reforms to level 2 and below qualifications, which could see funding removed for up to 90% of qualifications for young people, coupled with the decision to axe the traineeship programme is an absolute disaster for these groups. Ensuring the most disadvantaged groups are able to get the skills they need will be a big topic in 2023. Part of the solution will be for the DfE to make good on their promises to simplify the apprenticeship system. Making it easier for smaller employers to engage with the apprenticeship system is likely to lead to better apprenticeship take up amongst young people and at entry level.

Building a world-class skills system

In 2023 we need to shift the dial on several key issues, which makes it even more important to pull together as one voice representing the sector if we are really serious about building a world class skills system. That is why The Future Skills Coalition (FSC), which we launched earlier this year alongside the Association of Colleges and City & Guilds, will be an important part of that collaborative approach. Over the next 12 months, the FSC will ramp up activity and engage much more with employers, industry bodies and civil society – as well as the ministers and officials with power to make the changes we urgently need.

While it hasn’t all been plain sailing, 2022 has been a year in which the sector can once again be proud of its achievements – and I am personally really proud of everything the AELP team has done to support our members. Times might be tough, but we shouldn’t forget how far we’ve come. The case for better skills provision has never been stronger, and it is still one of the highest priorities for all political parties – that simply wasn’t the case a decade ago. So, although 2023 is bound to bring about significant challenges, I hope that by working together we can ensure the skills sector is in a healthier place in 12 months’ time.  

I wish you all a restful Christmas.

Jane Hickie
By Jane Hickie, Chief Executive of AELP

Related Articles