Sara Gariban

Further Education can help Londoners to access opportunities in the city, but decades of underfunding have weakened London’s vocational and adult training offer. Now, in the face of a looming recession, and our exit from the European Union, we must consider the place of further education in levelling out London’s two-speed labour market.

London is renowned for the progress it has made in school performance over recent decades. Reflecting these gains, 61 per cent of London students chose to study at a higher education institution in 2016/17, substantially higher than the national average of 52 per cent. This is important because achieving qualifications helps young Londoners succeed in the capital’s highly competitive job market.

But this is just one side of a more complex story; not all Londoners have benefitted from the city’s educational gains. Indeed, one in six Londoners between 20 and 24 are not in education, employment or training, and this share is as high as in the rest of England. For Londoners in employment, those with level 3 or equivalent qualifications earn on average 24 per cent more than their peers outside of the capital, while for those with low or no qualifications, this wage premium is just three per cent. For many Londoners, accessing meaningful, secure and well-paid employment can be challenging.

Further Education qualifications can provide learners with an opportunity to access and compete in the labour market through providing essential skills, apprenticeships, and technical knowledge; all of which can boost employment and wellbeing outcomes. Retraining and upskilling are even more needed today as Covid-19 is triggering widespread job disruption and displacement.

But without significant investment and reform, London’s further education sector will struggle to support Londoners through the recession. As we explore in our Centre for London report, City Skills, the capital’s further education system needs to overcome three major challenges.

Firstly, it has been under funded and under resourced, leading to falling participation – and this is in stark contrast to higher education where both funding and learner numbers have increased. In London, after taking into account population increases, since 2004/5 the proportion of working-age Londoners engaging with the Further Education system has decreased from 13.6 to 7.5 per cent, while numbers of HE learners have been rising.

Additionally, for learners, further progression between lower and higher-level learning is relatively rare, with the balance tipped towards the provision of lower level qualifications and a lack of intermediate qualifications to facilitate this development. Indeed, three quarters of London’s funded Further Education learners take courses at level 2 and below, compared to only one per cent at level 4 and above.

Finally, despite the sector’s best efforts, it has struggled to meet changing demand for skills, with a persistent mismatch between learner skills and employer needs in the capital, with the number of cases where employers have been unable to fill a vacancy due to a skills shortage more doubling since 2011 (rising from 14,000 to 37,000). As this suggests, despite great potential, the further education system faces some serious challenges in meeting the needs of Londoners.

So far, London’s university boom has come at the expense of vocational and adult education. Yet these are vital to provide learners with the skills to access London’s job market and progress through their careers: London cannot level out its two-speed labour market with an education and training system that looks as polarised. From our research, we have set out some key principles to boost the capital’s further education offer:

  1. Resource London’s further education sector with a government-backed support package, including boosting teaching grants for subjects relevant to skills shortages, free tuition for first courses and lifelong learning loan allowance for higher level courses.
  2. The Mayor of London, with support from Department for Education, should map pathways for learner progression, evaluate effectiveness of courses and apprenticeships, and research barriers for those not in education employment or training.
  3. The Mayor should lead a strategic approach to London’s further education offer, to encourage innovation and expansion of delivery in areas of skills shortages.

Without investment and strategic long-term thinking, the further education sector will not be able to improve access to the city’s job opportunities. The government can no longer afford to neglect it.

Sara Gariban, Senior Researcher at Centre for London

Centre for London’s report:  City Skills: Strengthening London’s further education offer

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