Ian Pretty, Chief Executive at Collab Group

Today (21 Jan), the Government released the long-awaited #SkillsforJobs White Paper. The White Paper sets out a bold and ambitious plan for the future of technical and professional education in England.

Skills for Jobs

The release of the White Paper occurs at an unprecedented time. The COVID-19 crisis has created unique challenges for colleges but also for the wider economy. Ultimately, the critical role that colleges and technical education will play in supporting employers, individuals and communities has never been better appreciated.

We welcome many of the proposals contained within the White Paper. We strongly support the plan's ambition to embed prior accreditation into qualification pathways, invest in traineeships and apprenticeships and recruit more industry experts into the further education sector. We also hope that the White Paper signals the Government's commitment to adult skills, especially as upskilling and retraining will be critical to economic recovery.

The paper outlines a clear strategic direction for colleges which strongly ties them to delivering the skills that employers and the economy need. We must move beyond a system of fragmentation to one of coherence and integration — the white paper sets out a direction of travel for how we can achieve this.

Skills solution powerhouses

Collab Group conceptualises colleges as "skills solution powerhouses:" a national network of colleges working in collaboration with employers to solve skills challenges. We have previously argued that each region should have a skills strategy which places colleges at the heart of local economies and communities. As such, it is encouraging to see the emergence in the white paper of local skills improvement plans as a potential mechanism to achieve greater local and regional alignment between colleges and employers.

A key question remains around the mechanism for achieving these ambitions. Colleges are not a homogenous group, and so any attempts to impose a uniform solution will likely not deliver the intended results.

This was the experience of the area-based review process where an identical solution generated markedly different outcomes across localities. Some devolved regions have already established integrated skill systems through employer partnerships, regional Chambers of Commerce and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

It will be important that reforms are enacted in collaboration with stakeholders across devolved regions to ensure that systems are not disrupted where they are already working well.

Greater collaboration between colleges

Some of the proposals outlined in the White Paper may need further refinement. For example, the intention for greater collaboration between colleges is undoubtedly welcome but equally important is the need to enhance collaboration and reduce unnecessary competition between GFEs, universities and sixth form colleges. We also strongly support the ambition to promote the employer voice in the skills system.

As Matthew Fell from the CBI has said, education providers already work closely with employers through collaboratively local partnerships. Collab Group colleges work with around 60,000 employers across the UK.

Working with industry is at the core of what colleges do, and they are uniquely placed to deliver these ambitious reforms. Collab Group colleges leaders are expert at understanding the needs of industry and know how to put employers at the heart of training design and delivery.

Higher Level Technical Education

The White Paper has also not addressed the issue of Level 4 and 5 provision being the domain of colleges rather than universities. This is something we see as critical to technical education and achieving the Government's ambitions. It is our view that colleges should drive the delivery and expansion of L4/5 provision.

Longer-term, there are still questions around the details of a sustainable funding settlement for colleges and the mechanisms for increased intervention powers for colleges in financial difficulty. Collab Group college leaders are enthusiastic about working with the Government to resolve these issues and actively help with the implementation of policy solutions.

However, we are hopeful that these details will be agreed as part of a comprehensive and collaborative process of engagement with leaders across the further education sector. Collab Group welcomes the White Paper and looks forward to working with Government to develop these proposals further.

The future of FE reform

Today, we also publish an updated version of our position paper on the future direction of FE reform. The report highlights some of the critical issues for reform, including the structure of the sector, higher education provision and the need for a sustainable funding settlement.

"We welcome the long-awaited Skills for Jobs White Paper. Collab Group and our member colleges support the direction of travel that the white paper sets out. It is encouraging to see the central role that Government sees technical and professional education playing in addressing our national challenges.

"Collab Group and our member colleges are enthusiastic about working in collaboration with Government to develop these proposals in the months ahead."

Ian Pretty, Chief Executive at Collab Group

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