At a recent House of Commons Education Select Committee roundtable event I attended, the discussion turned to the benefits of adopting a ‘German style’ FE system here in the UK. While now is absolutely the time to be looking at the vital changes we need to make to futureproof our FE and skills system, I have never believed in trying to import another country’s education system wholesale, in particular because it has been developed to tackle different skills needs and operate in an entirely different ecosystem.
Instead, I believe our energy would be better spent ‘borrowing’ elements of the German system, as well as looking to other nations such as Singapore which also have a world class approach to continually skilling and re-skilling their workforce. If applied thoughtfully, these new elements could help to develop an even better world class lifelong learning and skills system that suits the culture and existing framework specific to the UK.
With unemployment predicted to reach 4 million by the end of the year, there is real urgency in creating a skills system that can help people of all ages get back into work and develop the skills employers need most.
The forthcoming FE Whitepaper is a golden opportunity for Government to create the right environment for our FE system to play a central role in reskilling people for a post-Covid world. Here are the key priorities that I believe should be addressed in the forthcoming FE whitepaper.
Create a national skills plan which will equip us to take on the challenges that lie ahead
It’s time for a new funding model and a solid national plan which is designed to take on the three-pronged challenge of Covid-19, unemployment and Brexit. Any national skills plan must recognise that the role of further education is integral to driving economic growth - not just to deliver on good outcomes for individuals, but also to deliver on the skills required to grow our economy. Covid-19’s devastating impact on the labour market means that, moving forward, any FE strategy must be geared towards supporting economic recovery, encouraging the learning and upskilling of individuals and above all, helping people into jobs.
Transform how FE is funded
It would be unrealistic of me to sit here and expect more money to flow through the system – although this would be obviously welcome and beneficial. However, what we must do is make sure that every single penny works hard and delivers on employers’ and individuals’ needs.
For example, there is the question of the unspent £2.5bn National Skills Fund which has real potential to be transformative and could be used immediately to support skills needs for people who have Level 3 or higher skills but find themselves unemployed. The criteria of existing funding pots, such as the Adult Education Budget, could be broadened to ensure it also supports bitesized and online learning offers, which will help people of all ages quickly back into employment. And lastly, the scope of FE loans could be broadened to create individual learner accounts that can be accessed throughout people’s lives to help them gain new skills or switch careers.
Empower regional authorities with more autonomy to deliver on local jobs needs
An overarching National Skills Plan should also be backed by flexible funding and be prepared to devolve decision-making to regional authorities to deliver on local needs.
Each region across the UK has different economic needs, skills and strengths – Cambridge is a centre for science, the West Midlands is home to all things automotive, Sheffield, Liverpool have the largest concentrations of health and social care skills, whilst London and Reading are renowned for design and marketing. We need to empower regional authorities to be able to deliver against local needs. This includes creating devolved strategies which ensure that skills of workers match the skills required of regional employers and where necessary, creating opportunities for individuals to reskill. A skills deficit is costly to employers, workers and governments and if we get it wrong at a regional level, these gaps will inevitably lower productivity and economic growth at a national level.
Alongside this, clear success measures must be put in place from the outset so that programmes are delivered against objectives – the regions that deliver successfully on these parameters should be incentivised through further funding.
Ensure that lifelong learning is at the heart of our FE strategy
Lifelong learning should be an integral part of a career trajectory and everyone should be entitled to it – be it a full-time student looking for their first job through to older workers seeking a career conversion. Today, this becomes even more important, with many looking to switch careers altogether due to the rapid changes to the jobs market we’re seeing. Some industries have been more affected by the economic changes than others, meaning many thousands of workers may be displaced from these, and seeking work in other sectors. It is important to keep a handle on these changes and create a bridge between industries that are reducing their workforce and growing sectors which require a related skill set.
Part of this should include elevating the role of careers guidance and recognising that this should go hand in hand with the lifelong learning cycle for people of all ages – no matter who they are or where they come from.
Difficult times lie ahead but in order to rise to the challenge, changes are needed to keep Britain’s FE system in shape, as it has a crucial role to play in helping to get the UK back to work and our economy in good health.
By Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO of City & Guilds Group