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There’s lots of positivity in the sector around the Government’s new Post-16 skills plan, and yes it’s an extremely positive thing that technical pathways are to be given the same focus as academic ones, but I can’t help thinking that the plan is actually overlooking a number of key issues.

The FE sector is going from crisis to crisis. We’ve had 50 skills ministers in 60 years, and lots of changes in policies during that time, which has created a highly confusing system. Reform after reform doesn’t help rid this confusion. While I support the sentiment that there needs to be tighter regulations in place in terms of the quality of qualifications, I don’t think pointing the finger at awarding organisations for somehow failing the education system is fair, or accurate.

In terms of the skills plan itself, firstly, the fact that the success of thousands of learners will be in the hands of one awarding organisation isn’t particularly sensible – both in terms of a single organisation having full control over price, and the quality of said qualifications.

Also, I’d argue that fostering healthy competition between awarding bodies has actually evolved the industry, and led to increased R&D, innovation, experimentation and use of new learning technologies – which only serves to further progress the UK’s educational offer. With appropriate regulation and governance, of course.

Not only this, the new proposed technical routes cover under half of occupations, meaning they’re at risk of ostracizing an enormous part of the labour market. Niche awarding organisations exist to service this part of the market and I worry that young people will struggle even more than they already are to get jobs if this happens.

In my opinion, the issue is less about the number of qualifications on offer, and more about how awarding organisations work with employers to ensure what they’re teaching learners matches what businesses need. This is why I believe we should give the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) a chance. Introduced in place of the Qualification Credits Framework (QCF) - which led to the explosion of qualification in the first place - last year, this was a welcome change. Indeed, some awarding organisations have started to get rid of qualifications where they’re unwilling to work properly with employers on them. In my opinion, this is a much more workable solution than the single awarding body model.

What we actually need now from the new skills minister, Robert Halfon, is a settling influence and some honest clarification as to what is achievable and practical in this new skills plan – something which was introduced by an outgoing minister, from a department that will no longer exist. There is no additional funding for the reforms to be implemented and the timescales set out in the Skills Plan are very ambitious – and need to be considered in light of the ongoing area reviews and devolution of adult skills funding. It will no doubt take years, and more than one Parliament, to implement most of them.

In my view, at the moment the FE sector simply does not have the capacity to absorb all the changes intended by the skills plan, whilst so much else is in a state of flux.  Given the timescale, lack of funding and other difficulties with implementing these plans, my advice to colleges is to be aware of the skills plan but be assured that this set of reforms will not take place overnight, and is likely to evolve considerably before the September 2019 deadline for the first teaching of ‘pathfinder’ routes. We, and other sector stakeholders will be pushing for a full consultation and two-way dialogue around the reforms.

Rob May, director at YMCA Awards


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