Mark Dawe, Chief Executive, The Skills Network

Working in the further education and skills sector, it is difficult to keep up sometimes.  Learning providers such as @SkillsNetworkUK (TSN) are operating in a heavily regulated environment although we can’t complain about that when some of our provision is being co-funded or even fully funded by the state.

Senior management must be constantly aware that government regulation and priorities can change and this has to be built into any strategic business planning. 

A few months ago, we were discussing what a ‘revolutionary’ FE reform white paper might mean but now apparently we should just expect a ‘continuum’ when the document is eventually published. 

At the same time, we are weighing up the skills and employment measures in the Spending Review following July’s Plan for Jobs, possible lower funding rates for some apprenticeship standards, Migration Advisory Committee recommendations for the Shortage Occupation List as EU freedom of movement ends, the outcome of a review of qualifications at level 3 or lower and a potential opportunity presented by the prime minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee

The Spending Review at least brought us the welcome news that £138m will fund ‘in-demand technical courses for adults’ as part of the Guarantee.

On the face of it by extending the age entitlement for funding a first level 3 qualification from April 2021, the Guarantee is great news for our sector and the adult learners who will benefit from it.  While no one could argue that it should create a free-for-all in terms of the qualifications which are included in the entitlement, there has always been the potential fly in the ointment that the approved list of qualifications might be a case of what Whitehall thinks is best as opposed to what the economy actually needs. 

Exclusion of some key sectors from the list:

  • Hospitality
  • Administration, and
  • Tourism

Sure enough these exclusions will prompt huge controversy within sectors scrambling for survival amid the continuing Covid restrictions.

‘Full fat’ level 3 qualifications aren’t always the answer

With all this ‘noise’ going on, the temptation is to adopt the Nike philosophy of ‘just do it’. 

At TSN, we aren’t going to abandon business planning or ignore what the government may be getting up to, but our provision is geared to what the ‘real world’ economy is telling us what is really needed.  We have known for a long time for example that ‘full fat’ level 3 qualifications aren’t always the answer to transforming adult learners’ lives and so responding to the lifetime skills guarantee is only going to be one of many parts of our offer. 

The pandemic has also accelerated demand for online or blended learning which will remain long after it is over.  Fleet of foot ITPs realise that this presents commercial income opportunities with employers rather then just relying on government funded provision.

A robust response to the current challenges requires proper access to sound labour market intelligence and TSN has recently published a report with our partners Emsi on Skills and Employment Trends, which is available to all. 

One headline is that the government will be right to include skills for the care sector as part of the Guarantee because between June and September 2020, three of the top five job roles facing shortages in the UK were:

  1. Family support workers
  2. Home care social workers, and
  3. Personal care assistants

It’s just as well then that IfATE is reviewing its apprenticeship funding rates for care workers at levels 2 and 3.   

Surprises in top 10 most in demand occupations

The top 10 most in demand occupations don’t present any surprises, for example nurses clearly at the top and van drivers ranked seventh.  You will also find software programmers and book-keepers on the list too. 

What you may find more interesting however, which brings us back to a provider planning its future offer, is the list of fastest growing job roles and growing sectors.  Would you have guessed that auctioneers and dairy workers are on this list?  I bet they haven’t figured on any Whitehall listing unless officials have downloaded the Emsi report.

A key point to glean from these findings is that while some of the most in demand jobs clearly require technical skills with often a qualification needed to go with them, they may not be enough on their own. 

The report has pulled out the soft skills most required by UK employers with communications skills and management easily topping the list; sales, customer service and enthusiasm make up the rest of the top 5. 

The demand for strong leadership skills is hardly a surprise but they are more needed now with the growth of remote working and some home workers requiring motivation.  

Perhaps the lesson here is that any FE reform shouldn’t be ‘revolutionary’ in terms for example of lobbing capital funding at kit that will be out of date in less than five years’ time. 

The DfE’s approach should be about enabling individual learners to choose their preferred mode of learning to acquire the necessary technical or soft skills identified in the report to give a person the best chance to succeed in a competitive jobs market. 

This suggests that there is indeed a strong case for bringing back skills accounts.

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive, The Skills Network

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