Graham Hasting-Evans, Managing Director, NOCN Group

Gavin Williamson 100x100In the FE #SkillsForJobs White Paper, @GavinWilliamson sets the bar high when it comes to his vision for its impact:

“This White Paper is not just about a new economic dawn for the country, crucial though that it is.

"At its most fundamental it is about fulfillment and enrichment on a personal level.

"Far too long we have squandered much of our latent creativity and talent: this White Paper will be the lever to unleash it.

"It will ensure that people can learn the skills they need to get great jobs, as well as provide the means to plan a fulfilling and productive life”.

Fair play to the Minister, the bar therefore could not be set any higher or be more ambitious.

But as we all know compiling the strategy is 10% of the effort with implementation 90%.

Here I examine what the White Paper says about level 4 and 5 qualifications in that context:

The scale of the challenge

In 2019 the UK workforce was 34 million of which 13.2% were at level 4 and 5. That is 4.6 million, including all ages. The pre-Covid-19 forecast was for the number of people at level 4 and 5 to increase by 0.5 million, so 14.3% by 2024. Within the next 3 years. This is still low compared to our international competitor countries that typically have 20 - 30% of their workforce with a level 4 and 5 qualification.

If we want to emulate our competitors, then at a minimum, 20% is the target. If we set a timescale of the end of the decade then we will need 2.5 million more people to be at level 4 and 5 than we currently have; a tall order by any metric.

To illustrate in the 5-year period from 2014 to 2019 we increased the number of people with level 4 and 5 skills by 645,984. The increase we have to make to get to 20% is nearly 4 times that rate.

It will be interesting to see what targets the Government set but clearly to be competitive those targets will have to significantly exceed our past achievements and track record.

Delivering against this backdrop

National Skills Fund is to provide £2.5 billion of funding to support adult upskilling and reskilling. That funding pot will also finance level 3 qualifications including the roll out of T-Levels.

The take up of T-Levels would appear to be a critical feeder source into level 4 and level 5. T-Level graduates will be young adults, already on a vocational technical pathway and ambitious to progress their careers and therefore should be natural candidates for level 4 and 5 qualifications.

Three other main ways we can increase the number of people in the workforce with a level 4 or 5 qualification:

1. Full Time Adult Learners

The first are those going back to full-time educational courses or some form of model like the Open University degrees. But what number of people will take this route, especially if it has to be funded by loans? Probable small compared to the challenge.

2. Levy Funded Apprentieships

The second is Apprenticeships funded through the Levy. We now have 600 live Apprenticeship Standards. There are 15% Standards at L4 and 6% at L5; a total of 21%; this is encouraging.

However, if we look at starts in 2019/20, we see that at level 4 there were 26,447, 8.2% of the total and at level 5, 25,561 7.9%.

This is set against the low-level of total starts at 322,530 well below pre-reform levels. So, in total in 2019/20 there were 52,008 level 4 and 5 starts against the very challenging competition gap of around 0.5 million new starts every year.

Clearly there is a long way to go.

3. Professional Development

The third way is via those in employment being trained and qualified at level 4 and 5 (which is likely to include a significant proportion of T-Level graduates).

Under this approach an individual would get a qualification for a specific topic to help close a skills gap relevant to their employment and career development; supported by flexible advanced training programmes through in many cases the new Institutes of Technology and Universities.

This approach is value adding for both the individual as well as the employer. Accordingly, you would expect it to be the most popular route to level 4 and 5 qualifications.

But how do we encourage this to happen and how is it going to be incentivised and funded, recognizing the low base from which we are starting?

Employer and Employee attitudes

Are we in the position we are in because individuals and employers have to date not seen the value in the level 4 or 5 qualifications? If so, why?

What are the barriers to upskilling in the minds of employers and employees alike? What are their perceptions?

Answering these questions objectively is clearly key to winning commitment to and alignment with this major shift in skills levels.

Improving the chances of success

It is perhaps too early (and possibly counter-productive) to start espousing the prospects for success of the key recommendations of a White Paper only published early this year. What we can legitimately do however is recognize its ambitions, contribute to the debate and examine what needs to be done to improve our chances of a successful implementation.

My contribution to that debate is based on the following key success factors;

  • recognising the criticality of regulated qualifications and the benefits of these to all stakeholders;
  • realising the opportunities available via Apprenticeships;
  • securing the buy-in of employers and employees;
  • identifying and removing the barriers to employee and employer participation; and
  • co-ordinated action and planning across all Government Departments and initiatives

Graham Hasting-Evans, Managing Director, NOCN Group

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