Simon Ashworth, Chief policy officer of Association of Employment and Learning Providers

Late September’s announcement of a new “lifetime skills guarantee” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the introduction in April 2021 of an extended level 3 entitlement for adults under the National Skills Fund (NSF) was an extremely positive declaration.

Over the last ten years, funding for adults has been somewhat near the back of the line for a further education sector which has had to fight tooth and nail to get a fair settlement. It was way back in 2013 when the coalition government introduced advanced learning loans, ending what grant funding there was for level three qualifications for adults over the age of 24, and so the Prime Minister’s announcement represents a much welcomed boost for adult education.

More than just a first level 3 please

However, a “lifetime guarantee” for adults should be exactly what it says on the tin. Such a guarantee needs to be greater than just a commitment to offering a first level 3. The government should be bold and recognise the shifting demographics of the employment market and the need for individuals to continually retrain and reskill at numerous points throughout their working lives. Just because an individual has an A-Level in geography, this should not stop them being supported in retraining to take up a role in a priority sector.

The National Retraining Scheme (NRS) was aimed at supporting adults reskill where their jobs were at risk of automation and/or technological advancement and this is now being integrated into the NSF. It follows a report last year from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which predicted that up to one and a half million adults could become displaced as a result of automation, showing that the need for reskilling and retraining is clear. If the availability of funding is restrictive, then the government should at least consider co-funding for those adults with an existing level 3 qualification to undertake another level 3 in a different vocational subject. This also then allows the government to share the cost burden with the employer and/or learner.

Which qualifications should be eligible?

There is much debate on which qualifications should be in scope for the entitlement. AELP’s view is that the scope needs to be both broad and flexible, but no doubt the government’s starting point and core will be the sector priorities highlighted in the Industry Strategy. However, let’s not forget that the Industrial Strategy was written back in 2017 and some would question how aligned those remain following the unforeseen Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges associated with skills and labour shortages as a result of Brexit. The government should look at the occupational shortages highlighted in September’s more recent Migratory Advisory Committee report, of which adult care deserves a special mention, with the long-standing care crisis and a sector which is doubly hamstrung by the pitiful funding for apprenticeship standards at levels 2 and 3.

Ensuring funding really is demand-led

How to route the necessary funding is a challenging piece of the jigsaw which will prompt differing views. Starting the National Skills Fund in April 2021 means that if the government wants to align the NSF with the Adult Education Budget (AEB), there is the challenge that the procured non-devolved AEB contracts expire in July 2021 and we are expecting a new procurement to be launched in the coming months, but those will have a line of sight for an August start date rather than April.

Over 50% of the AEB is currently devolved and there seems to be a lukewarm attitude in Whitehall towards further devolution. Skills devolution is still very new and the first full year of provision has been badly impacted by the pandemic, meaning it’s difficult to properly and proportionality measure impact. Furthermore, 90% of the ESFA AEB is grant-funded, with only a 10% slither being procured. Every year without fail, independent training providers (ITPs) report demand significantly outstripping supply for procured adult funding, whereas there is yearly underspend on grants. Therefore, allocating out the NSF on a 90:10 slip would be a massively missed opportunity, especially with ITPs having the capacity and able to hit the ground at the get-go.  

The long-term answer

The recent report from the Social Market Foundation called it right. The introduction of Individual Skills Accounts for adults would be an ideal long-term solution and opportunity to shift to a much more learner demand-led system with greater choice, but we need to recognise developing such an approach will take time, and planning and interim arrangements may be needed to plug the immediate short-term gap.

If that were to be the case, then AELP would argue that all the new funding for level 3 is put out to tender so the providers who can actually meet demand can access the funding needed.

Simon Ashworth, Chief policy officer of Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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