@NCFE's @MichaelLemin unpacks the #SkillsforJobs #FEWhitePaper
The release of the government’s Skills for Jobs white paper shines a light on the national training landscape and provides some much-needed reassurance amid the Covid-19 crisis. Rapid changes to our labour market mean that this commitment to financial support for a lifetime of learning is needed now more than ever, particularly to ensure that those most disadvantaged in society have the means and opportunity to secure good, fulfilling work opportunities via access to high quality, flexible learning opportunities.
The issue of skills and retraining has never been higher on the public agenda so it’s really positive to see such a focus on, and recognition for, the value of technical education, dispelling the notion that only degrees can lead to a good job. There are several key themes in the paper, many of which we are already familiar with as they have already been announced.
Employer involvement – let’s standardise
When it comes to technical education, getting employer collaboration right is absolutely crucial. With this in mind, we welcome the government’s drive to bring consistency to employer involvement in qualification design. For us, it’s integral that employers sit at the heart of the system to ensure each qualification is fit for purpose and develops the relevant skills and competencies for the future of the industry they serve. However, we recognise that much can be done to further improve collaboration between employers, awarding organisations and educators and bring more agility to the system of designing qualifications.
Flexible Lifelong Loans Entitlement – does it go far enough?
The white paper usefully brings together existing plans with respect to post-16 technical education and apprenticeships standards. On balance, the most radical proposal it seems is a Flexible Lifelong Loans Entitlement to be fully operational from 2025 - after the next general election - as part of the Flexible Lifetime Skills Guarantee.
It's great to see that the lifetime loan entitlement will help people to upskill and retrain, but the scope and detail remains relatively unclear. We can safely assume that this will help people to access training at levels 4-6, but it is unclear whether it will support learners at level 3 and below.
We are very conscious that there are also many adults who need access to training at all levels. In a practical sense, there are many in demand job roles that require training at level 3 and below, and their needs may not be solely met by the availability of funded level 3 programmes. This could be because they already hold a level 3 qualification, or because they cannot afford to access the course without provision of maintenance. It is important that there are proposals to help such learners access training. The upcoming consultation may help to deliver clarity, as well as giving the sector an opportunity to advocate on behalf of those who may fall through the cracks.
Are loans the future for adult learning?
The National Skills Fund is currently funded until 2025 – aligned with when the Flexible Lifelong Loans Entitlement is fully operational. This raises the difficult question as to whether the government will continue to invest £500m a year for England, or whether the majority of government support thereafter will be provided through loans.
The paper introduces a number of local solutions, including engaging employers at a local level, led by accredited Chambers of Commerce to develop local skills improvement plans. This is a nod to the German system,(albeit without mandating employers to be members of the Chamber of Commerce) and may help to facilitate a better understanding of how we can work with businesses to truly develop joined up pipeline which imparts the right skills that employers are looking for at a local level.
These plans do feel somewhat at odds with the lack of any further devolution of budgets to local areas. Indeed, by giving national entitlements to learners, it could be argued that we are moving to more of a learner-based, rather than region-based model of funding. Elected mayors are likely to push for more devolved power (possibly over 16-19 budgets) so it will be interesting to see how this develops.
Funding and Accountability
There will be a vital consultation in the Spring to seek views on proposals to simplify funding rules, and crucially to hold providers to account for the outcomes they deliver. It is important that the government tread carefully, the potential unintended consequences could be stark. For example, if funding is determined based on learner progression into work and further learning, this could create a huge disincentive for providers to engage those who are NEET or have additional needs. These issues must be taken into account and worked through if an outcomes-based system is to prove successful.
A welcome focus on teaching
It is our belief that high quality teaching is the most important aspect of the learning experience. It is great to see that the whitepaper outlines plans to support colleges and providers to recruit, retrain and develop teaching staff. We were delighted to be referenced in the whitepaper for our work with World Skills:
“We will encourage more organisations with relevant expertise to provide high-quality and evidence-based training and development for teaching staff in the sector. For example, supporting initiatives such as the WorldSkills UK’s Centre of Excellence scheme, developed in partnership with NCFE, where providers and teachers will be able to benefit from a skills and knowledge development programme including peer-to-peer learning and technical masterclasses based on international best practice.”
Of course, this is not just a recruitment issue, we must do more to solve retention problems too. There is still work to do to better understand why educators leave the profession, and what can be done to address this.
Whilst we recognise the ongoing challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the vast sums of money the government is spending on job retention and creation, it’s clear that additional investment is still needed in the sector, in order to see returns through a prosperous future economy
Upskilling, retraining and lifelong learning has long been a key focus for us at NCFE and it’s fantastic to see that these themes are now under a national spotlight. We feel that FE and Skills are the perfect antidote to the worrying impacts of Covid-19 and we look forward to continuing to work together with government, sector bodies, and providers on the vital reforms which are needed to make a real difference to people’s lives.
Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at NCFE
Michael has spent his career working in policy across education, local government and international development. As Head of Policy for NCFE, he is an expert in vocational and technical education policy, working closely with colleagues and government to support the development of a system that works for all