AELP's Jane Hickie

The Conservative Party met for their annual conference in Manchester 3-5 October 2021. This was their first major in-person event since before the pandemic. AELP saw this as a great opportunity to engage with ministers, MPs and delegates on the issues that matter most to our members, as well as the ways we can support the government’s ambitions to get people into good training and work.

Clearly, the government recognise our sector’s role in their bid to “build back better”

Any party conference veteran will tell you, the mere mention of Further Education at these events is usually pushed to the dark corners of a few niche fringe events. However, not at this one. From ‘skills skills skills’ in the Prime Minister’s keynote speech to the Chancellor’s using his own slot to announce extended Kickstart and cash incentives for hiring new apprenticesincentives for hiring new apprentices, the sector has never been higher on the political agenda. While this is welcome, it is not particularly surprising, with workforce shortages and the skills gap dominating the headlines every day. Clearly, the government recognise our sector’s role in their bid to “build back better”. But as with everything, the devil will be in the detail…

I had the chance to meet a variety of MPs and ministers over the days we were there. I have to say that for the most part, we came away feeling pretty heartened. Most MPs seemed clued-up on our sector, taking an informed view on the progress of the Skills and Post-16 Bill with offers to support amendments, and interest in our spending review priorities. I was also heartened by the willingness of MPs to visit providers in their constituencies, finding out more about the important role they play in delivering skills and employability programmes in local communities.

AELP perhaps take a less optimistic view on the extension of Kickstart

AELP perhaps take a less optimistic view on the extension of Kickstart. Members regularly raise concerns with us about the programme- from the lack of mandatory training and progression routes, to the displacement of young people from apprenticeship or traineeship programmes. However, there was much to be positive about.

The news about the extension of the apprenticeship incentives was fantastic

The news about the extension of the apprenticeship incentives was fantastic. These additional incentives have delivered over 100k new apprenticeships and has been a huge help for SMEs and learners. They have particularly benefited younger people- with 76% of the new apprentices being under 25 years old. However, I did point that while the incentives to January 2022 were most welcome, we need them to be extended even further, if we are to truly “build back better”. We also need ministers to consider adopting a long-term suite of incentives for 16-19 apprenticeships, to truly support the economic recovery we are all working towards.

Hearing Alex Burghart- the new Skills Minister- used his first appearance at one of the conference fringe meetings to focus on those lacking level 2 so they can progress further along their career paths was music to my ears. While I did have a good relationship with his predecessor, the focus on level 2 and above was somewhat frustrating. Not everyone is at level 3, not least the 9 million adults who lack basic English and maths skills. They need to start somewhere, and we need to be offering that support. So that statement and a recent positive meeting I had with the new Education Secretary give me cause to believe that this might be a Department for Education team that we can really work with.

The conference is now over and we’re all back to reality. So let’s turn that good, positive rhetoric into a reality and deliver for our learners. I for one am feeling cautiously optimistic.

Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, AELP

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