Dr Ann Limb CBE, the independent business Chair of the LSCC

Five ‘big ideas’ which are vital to ensure the UK skills sector is able to play the critical role it should in post Covid19 recovery 

The last few years have seen a period of worldwide social, political, and cultural upheaval. Change has been, and will continue to be, shaped by Brexit, Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, underpinned by a growing awareness of climate change and rapid digitalisation.

Together, these factors create a potent environment for transformation. Now is the moment for us to reflect on the values and ways of thinking that underpin our behaviours, decision-making and resource allocation. Skills is no exception to this as the significance of further and adult education rises near to the top of the government’s list of economic recovery solutions.

During the long years of ‘new’ Labour, neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, delivered a key policy speech on skills from an FE College. Within the space of the last two years, two Conservative Prime Ministers, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, have chosen the platform of an FE College from which to mark a demonstrable change in approach to the sector matched by a commitment to addressing long term chronic underfunding.    

This is welcome but it’s not enough. Below I outline five ‘big ideas’ which I believe are vital to consider together to ensure that the UK skills sector is able to play the critical role it should do in the recovery of the economy post Covid19. They are not original, and all need to be scrutinised more deeply. All require leadership and action from government, businesses, educational professionals and civil society.

1. Integrating reforms in the Further Education and Devolution White Papers

Skills policies have often been side-lined in favour of education policies, with governments focusing on the latter and third sector organisations or employers being left to address adult education. However, this solution has proved inadequate, and the impact of this is set to be felt more acutely than ever before as we endure a severe economic downturn.

We urgently require a further education and adult education sector where people of any age can acquire vocational and technical skills, secure apprenticeships or improve basic numeracy, literacy and language skills throughout their life. This is why the government’s commitment to introduce a lifetime learning guarantee is to be applauded.

Mass unemployment is approaching. The independent think tank, the Resolution Foundation, reports that 30% of workers have lost their jobs and now need reskilling at a time when the jobs market is saturated with new graduates who also face employment challenges.

Now is the perfect opportunity to integrate policy by linking reforms in the forthcoming White Papers on Further Education and Devolution. The government should seize the moment to devise and implement a strategic skills policy, coordinated at national level, delivered with and through local systems – colleges and providers. This will drive radical change across the education and training landscape and meet the needs of a drastically changed economic environment.

2. A long term 10 year plan for education and skills

Just as the government has developed a 10 year plan for the NHS, a similar approach needs to be taken for education and skills delivery, regarding these as essential rights just as we do with healthcare, protected from short term parliamentary thinking.

Widespread evidence indicates that taking a future look at things helps turn ‘present disagreements into assets not liabilities’, encouraging the exchange of different understandings and helping find common ground.

A long-term plan like this, shaped by all those impacted by skills and education strategies, has the potential to transform the nation and improve the prospects of future generations. Support for such an idea is already present, and now is the time to bite the bullet

3. An independent National Education and Skills Scrutiny Commission

Modelled on the National Infrastructure Commission, the government should create a National Education and Skills Scrutiny Commission, involving a broad range of individuals, organisations, communities and businesses at a regional and local level.

This body could then engage with, but exist outside of, current political structures, providing independent oversight of an agreed 10-year plan for education and skills, with the freedom to create regional and local scrutiny committees, complementing current trends towards devolution.

Diversity of ideas and representation in these committees is of the utmost priority, ensuring that they benefit from the broadest range of expertise and lived experience.

The current moment of ‘national crisis’ presents another opportunity here; to highlight the benefits of wide-reaching collaboration between individuals and groups from a varied set of backgrounds and opinions.

4. A digital premium for digitally excluded students, workers and households

Covid-19 has massively hastened the existing move towards digitalisation, spurring many of us to rapidly develop new digital skills. But it has also highlighted inequality, with 1.9 million UK households not having access to the internet, isolating these people from the rest of society.

With the shift towards digitalisation likely to remain permanent when the Covid-19 crisis is over, it will be essential to ensure that everyone has access to the internet.

One solution to fund this initiative would be donations from charitable foundations associated with giant tech companies who have benefitted hugely from the pandemic, such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Zoom, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple.

The infrastructure to distribute these funds effectively already exists, through institutions such as schools, colleges, universities, government offices and trade unions.

5. A Post Qualification Admissions system for university entrance

Teacher assessment and predicated grades have become the norm in 2020, highlighting flaws in the use of this system for offering university places. Added to which, the summer Ofqual debacle has seen some Vice Chancellors now calling for A level exams to be scrapped for 2021. If ever there was a moment for transformation it is now.

As far as back as 1997, the Dearing Report argued for significance changes in the applications system to university. The Blair government did not heed the call. A subsequent review of admissions in 2004, commissioned by the government, concluded that ‘relying on predicted grades, cannot be fair … since it is based on data which are not reliable, is not transparent for applicants or institutions, and may present barriers to applicants who lack self-confidence.’ The report urged the immediate creation of a post-qualification admissions system.

With the admissions system already in turmoil, why not turn a crisis into the opportunity to create a better and fairer admissions system for the long term.

Ann Limb Vice Chair, City & Guilds

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