Ewart Keep, Director of SKOPE, University of Oxford

A Right to Adult ‘Training and Retraining’

The National Skills Fund’s underlying long-term aim is stated to be moves towards a ‘right to train’, analogous to (how is unspecified) the Conservatives’ famous ‘right to buy’ (the council house you live in).

Does this focus on the individual make sense?

The overall answer seems to be ‘yes’.

There are huge adult learning challenges looming and the trend has been one of decline in both individual participation and a huge fall over time (60% in the volume of training days between 1997 and 2017) in employer-provided learning opportunities.

As ever, the nature and scale of the rights, roles and responsibilities of employers within our skills system unfortunately remain as nebulous and ill-defined as ever.

Even so, the government needs to develop a dual policy for adult training and retraining.

Sector-Focused ‘National Retraining Scheme’

First, on what employers need to start doing. The existing National Retraining Scheme is already piloting how best to work with firms to re-skill workers facing technological change and potential redundancy. It is still early days, but rumours suggest that employers are proving hard to engage with.

In any event, the National Retraining Scheme is the vehicle for a sectorally-focused attempt to reach out to employers over adult skills and there is little point in the National Skills Fund duplicating this approach, not least as experience with the levy suggests that this road ends in deadweight. In other words, public money ends up supporting training that employers would otherwise have had to undertake and pay for themselves.

The employer-focused strand of adult learning policy will, sooner or later, have to try to nail down what employers are responsible for and fund. Don’t hold your breath!

Adult Focused - Regionally Devolved – ‘National Skills Fund’

The second strand of policy development covered by the National Skills Fund needs to adopt an individual focus and to offer tailored support to adults who want to up or re-skill themselves, either in order to progress within an occupation or sector, or to change jobs, perhaps in the face of technological change. It would be unwise to assume, as some commentators do, that only lower level workers are going to be impacted by digitalisation and automation.

It is clear from emerging research that many graduate level jobs (for instance, in legal services) will be impacted by digitalisation and their skills profiles and requirements altered, sometimes in quite profound ways. Workers across different sectors and occupations, at very varied skill levels are likely to need to upgrade and change their skills, not least if employers continue to retreat from offering substantive training to the bulk of their employees.


1: A step change in IAG for Adults linked to the National Skills Fund

First, we need to address the current inadequacies in information, advice and guidance (IAG) which render it extremely difficult for adults to understand the shape and direction of travel within their local labour markets, or to know what learning opportunities and options they may be able to access to help fit them new opportunities. Unless we deal with this and put in place a high quality IAG offer that provides a blend of computer and face-to-face based support, the National Skills Fund is very unlikely to be able to deliver what is needed for individuals.

2: Setting the right output measures for the National Skills Fund

Second, there is a need to think hard about what the outputs and performance indicators for National Skills Fund activity should be. In the past, there has been an obsession with imparting full qualifications – witness New Labour’s Train to Gain programme. It is doubtful whether this approach is what is either wanted or needed by all adult learners. For a lot of adults, time, energy and money are in short supply, and learning structured around monolithic full qualifications will be off- putting. For some, perhaps many, what they will be seeking is the opportunity to access bite- sized chunks of learning, perhaps certificated through micro- qualifications or credits, which over time can be assembled and aggregated into more substantive learning packages. Designing and developing these kinds of courses and finding appropriate and enthusiastic providers to deliver them is likely to be by no means simple or easy.

3: Pilot Regional Devolution of the National Skills Fund

Third, the policy makers developing the design of the National Skills Fund would do well to look at what some of the combined authorities have started to do with their devolved Adult Education Budget allocations. There have been interesting attempts to slim down the number of contracted providers, offer more courses that target a gap in provision at levels 2 and 3 for adults in work, and give financial incentives to providers to innovate. The Combined Authorities may be ideally placed to pilot the National Skills Fund.

Ewart Keep, Director of SKOPE, University of Oxford


Making a Success of the National Skills Fund

As we enter the 2020s, adults and employers are confronted with unprecedented economic and labour market change, in this context NCFE and Campaign for Learning asked twelve authors to set out their initial thoughts on the National Skills Fund, and the journey towards a ‘right to retraining’. 

These leading thinkers recommend policies for the reform of adult education to support a changing economy in this collection of articles.

Exploring the proposed National Skills Fund and an individual’s right to retraining in more detail, these articles highlight some of the major challenges the policy faces, alongside issues which are set to further impact the economy.

The authors are:

  • Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute - Renewing Lifelong Learning through the National Skills Fund

  • Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) - Backing Adults: Turning the National Skills Fund into Skills Accounts

  • Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) - Funding Skills Accounts through the National Skills Fund

  • Ewart Keep, Director of SKOPE, University of Oxford - A Dual Approach - Retain the National Retraining Scheme and Devolve the National Skills Fund

  • Jamie Driscoll, Mayor, North Tyne Combined Authority - Devolve the National Skills Fund to Elected Mayors and LEPs

  • Gemma Gathercole, Productivity & Skills Executive Officer at the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) - The National Skills Fund and Part-In, Part-Out Devolution

  • David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges - Bringing the National Skills Fund and Adult Education Budget Together

  • Simon Parkinson, CEO and General Secretary, Workers’ Education Association (WEA) - The National Skills Fund – Engaging the Whole Community

  • Kim Chaplain, Director for Work, Centre for Ageing Better - The National Skills Fund – No Older Adult Left Behind

  • Greg Wade, Policy Manager, Universities UK - HE and FE must collaborate over the National Skills Fund

  •  Andy Westwood, University of Manchester - From the National Skills Fund to a ‘Right to Retraining’

You may also be interested in these articles:

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