Following months of speculation, the Department for Education’s post-16 White Paper has officially been released. Promising a ‘Skills for Jobs’ agenda which will support the UK’s post-Covid recovery, bolster the government’s Net Zero commitment for 2050, and embolden the country’s post-Brexit future, the paper has been seen by many as a positive step in the right direction, even if the detail – and required funding – still remains obscure.
Many within the sector have also noted the irony in comparing the Government’s excitable talk of a Skills ‘revolution’, with the decision to dump the paper in a crowded news cycle. There was no major launch from the Secretary of State – unsurprising perhaps, given Covid restrictions – but the much-anticipated paper barely caused a ripple of news outside of trade publications.
A tentative conclusion to make is that if the government is serious about transforming the perception of further education, and indeed ending ‘intellectual snobbery’, it needs to take a much more considered approach to how it publicises, encourages, and cultivates this change. The Prime Minister’s speech on Lifelong Learning in September was an encouraging step, but publishing such an important paper the day after a presidential inauguration, England’s highest Covid-related death toll, and amid the ongoing confusion of school closures, was ill conceived.
Despite this, the paper has delivered encouraging signs for the sector, and the prospect of positive development in the months and years to come. It will only hope that the implementation of these well-intentioned reforms will be done with a greater deal of finesse than their announcement.
Mind the (Skills) Gap
Within both the paper itself and the rhetoric used by both Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson, there has been a recognition that the UK’s skills pipeline is currently not fit for purpose. Without a world-class skills pipeline, attempts to Build Back Better are hollow. The argument follows that, to make the most of the ‘freedoms’ afforded post-Brexit, encourage international investment, and to stimulate growth in the economy, a greater dialogue has to be facilitated between employers and training providers.
The government will look to achieve this through Local Skills Improvement Plans and a Strategic Development Funding pot, both of which are designed to give regional authorities the levers to respond quickly to economic changes and needs in the area. The by-product of this change is of course greater devolution and flexibility for regional authorities; something which the West Midlands Combined Authority has done to positive effect in recent years. Yet, it will be interesting to monitor quite how much power Whitehall is willing to cede in practice.
At a deeper level, the government has recognised the need to align training provision with the skills which employers need, and to equip learners with tools which are relevant to the world of work. The Department for Education has been cognisant of this for a few years now, having set up the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in 2017, and the shift towards ‘Employer-Led’ standards has been encouraging for both Apprenticeships and the development of T Levels.
The white paper notes that the Department are developing ‘occupational maps’ and clear progression routes for learners. While this is of course a positive step, it is also a promise which has been re-iterated since even before the inception of the Institute. No one is expecting these to develop over-night, but there is the slight concern that the Department is building a track while the train is still in motion.
The Meaning of Life(long Learning)
Perhaps the most encouraging signs to come from the white paper stemmed from the increased detail afforded to the Lifelong Skills Guarantee, which is due to ‘go live’ in the Spring of this year. The £2.5bn National Skills Fund is a positive headline for the sector and could go some way towards establishing a culture of upskilling, and indeed reskilling, among adults. As well as the economic benefits of a better-trained, more productive workforce, a wide-ranging system like this would create a boost in fostering social mobility and spreading prosperity across the country.
The implementation of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education, will the cornerstone of this, as will the greater flexibility and accessibility of funding for additional forms of FE. This will also be bolstered by the paper’s recognition of the importance of digital technology and blended learning approaches in encouraging more people to access education, especially in the context of the country’s post-Covid recovery, as we tentatively ease out of restrictions.
If the government succeeds in implementing this system, and cultivating a symbiotic relationship between employers, training providers and the Department, then it will go some distance towards truly Building Back Better. All that remains is to put the plans into action.