The Skills for Jobs White Paper has been a long time in the making as the government seeks to overhaul the further education sector across England. Education on our shores has been majorly impacted in the last 18 months – online and remote learning spiked as schools, colleges, and universities had to adapt through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with this, furlough schemes and redundancies were introduced, and as a result, there was an upturn in UK adults exploring their options. By July 2020, the end of the first lockdown, Google search data pointed to an 80% increase in searches for ‘adult study’ in the first half of the year.

The easing of restrictions and the reopening of educational institutions has seen this fall away again, with numbers returning back to the status quo that had forced the government to consider reforms.

School’s out for summer now, but with the 2021/22 academic year just around the corner, we take a look at some of the key reforms and how these approaches are being actioned to improve the post-16 education landscape.

Implementing new approaches to adult learning

The Skills for Jobs white paper is built around developing the state of post-16 education and putting skills and employers at the heart of the system.

The latest government figures show a declining number of people aged 19 and above taking on adult learning, with just 1,445,100 participating in further education and skills between August 2020 to April 2021, down 11% for the same period in 2019/20.

To overcome these challenging statistics, a wealth of changes, which include the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Higher Technical Qualifications, and a Strategic Development Fund, are being piloted, while employers are also being sought out to help develop and design technical courses which will be more attuned to learners finding work upon completion. Ofsted now takes into account whether the curriculum is purposeful and provides progression and stretch. These alterations will see changes to 16-18-year-old performance tables, National Achievement Rate tables and further education outcomes-based success measures.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

The Skills and Education Bill was born out of the Skills for Jobs White Paper and was introduced to parliament in May. Building on the need for more educational opportunities for adult learners, the Bill will also put a duty on colleges and universities to ensure their provision meets local needs.

With rising numbers of learners seeking out apprenticeship and vocational opportunities, the government aims to align technical further and higher education with the needs of employers, through improved collaboration between educators and employers.

Although still to be confirmed by parliament, a big emphasis would be placed on colleges to work more closely with stakeholders, employer representative bodies, and local government engagement to ensure they offer valuable qualifications that align with the needs of their local communities and economies.

Lifetime Skills Guarantee

As one of the first steps in the reforms, the government launched a Lifetime Skills Guarantee in April which has opened the door to free qualifications for an estimated 11 million adults.

Around 400 qualifications were made available in April 2021 to enable learners aged 24 and above who had not previously achieved a Level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualification to gain in-demand skills which can bolster their employment opportunities.

Known for its wide-ranging adult provision, Newcastle College has been able to offer a number of its existing courses to those eligible for the programme, including accounting and digital skills, as well as business, construction, childcare, engineering, energy, rail, health, education and automotive.

Principal Scott Bullock commented: “Newcastle College is at the heart of the North East and we absolutely welcome the White Paper’s proposed changes to post-16 education.

“The focus on skills, lifelong learning and employer engagement is completely aligned to our own vision to develop the skills and talents of our students to succeed in modern enterprise and make a positive contribution to the prosperity of our region, and we work closely with local employers and stakeholders to ensure our curriculum is developed with their needs at the forefront.

“We have always been committed to providing learners of all ages with opportunities to learn and have actively worked to remove barriers to learning wherever we can, but as we move forward in 2021 there has never been a greater need to ensure the skills of the future can be delivered to everyone throughout their lives.

“The launch of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee is a fantastic boost to support adults returning to education and we continue to develop an adult provision that is fit for our region. I look forward to seeing further developments that will help us to increase participation and opportunities for lifelong learning.”

Higher technical qualifications

Higher technical qualifications were introduced by the government to close the skills gap in more technically attuned careers and give learners a better chance of access roles that match their skillsets.

Newcastle College became one of the first colleges in the UK to have one of its courses approved when its foundation degree in Network and Cyber Security was awarded the HTQ quality mark, which provides learners with a reassurance that the course offers not only quality, but the skills employers are demanding.

To support the development of HTQs across our four nations, an £18m Growth Fund has been revealed which aims to increase employer demand in the digital, construction, health, and science sectors, with education providers encouraged to invest in equipment and develop business links in their regions to offer Level 4 and 5 training.

Employer-led innovation

Preparing learners for a life outside of education, the government’s reforms also focus largely on employer-led innovation, calling on UK businesses to play a central role in shaping technical skills provision.

Through the Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP) and the Strategic Development Fund, employers are already playing a larger role in post-16 education, with colleges like Myerscough College in Lancashire spearheading the Strategic Development Fund’s rollout.

The schemes are aimed at targeting skills mismatches for colleges and training providers, which ultimately prove detrimental to employers. £65 million has been allocated to the fund, with 12–16 areas challenged to build local collaborations with businesses in their regions to create a stronger and more efficient infrastructure for educational delivery.

The diverse needs of our UK learners mean that reforming education is not straightforward. There will be elements of the government reforms that will work for some but not for others. The key to career success is finding the qualifications that suit your needs. The introduction of additional routes into employment, especially through apprenticeship and vocation-led qualifications, can only serve as a benefit.

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