What Next for Skills?

Last week saw a celebration of all things Apprenticeships, with the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi MP, praising a type of education which “offer[s] people of all ages the chance to earn while they learn and build a successful career, while also delivering the skilled workforce this country needs to build back stronger.”

The Secretary of State’s closing words are an allusion to Levelling Up, the lens through which the government’s domestic policy platform have been portrayed. Apprenticeships, and Skills more broadly, are the central plank in this strategy. As the Levelling Up White Paper notes: “improving productivity, and spreading prosperity, crucially depends on enhancing people’s education and skills.”

As such, the government has laid out a seemingly ambitious package of measures to ensure that by 2030, “the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK.” This includes the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Digital Skills Bootcamps, an adult numeracy programme (‘Multiply’) and an underlined belief in T Levels.

Clearly, Skills are everywhere in public policy, but ahead of the reintroduction of the Skills Bill to Parliament next week, two major issues remain; how best to support lifelong learning, and how regionalised will this picture be?

 

Late Registration

One of the government’s central ambitions is to embed lifelong learning in the education system. This will include a Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) for individuals in England, equivalent to four years’ worth of fees for post-18 education. HE and FE Minister Michelle Donelan MP has confirmed that trials for this programme will begin this year, and this initiative has been met with a broadly positive response by the sector.

However, some issues remain. The LLE is due to be implemented in 2025 and will allow learners to access funding for courses between Levels 4 and 6. This therefore precludes qualifications such as GCSEs, which are Level 3, and lower-level apprenticeships, meaning it will be difficult for adults who wish to entirely reskill and take a lateral, educational step. More so, many in the sector have called for a more flexible, modular system in which credits can be moved between institutions, thereby giving adults the freedom to use their LLE in a way which can be easily moulded around their life.

The fear is that if the LLE is rigidly imposed, it will stop learners from being able to reskill, or to balance their education with their employment. Without this flexibility, the government’s expansive plans for lifelong learning may fall flat.

 

Paying the Bills

On a macro level, the government see increased skills levels as the key driver for regional growth, and it is through regional autonomy that they are looking to achieve this. The Skills Bill lays the groundwork for regional authorities to assess their own skills needs and put appropriate plans in place, alongside employers, to achieve this.

Through this, the Conservatives are seeking to emulate the successes of Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley, and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Both have highlighted the importance of skills and put in place policies which have resulted in increased employment opportunities. Crucially, they have both been high-profile advocates for their areas, a factor which is hugely important in driving investment from both overseas and internally.

The Levelling Up White Paper underlined this change in highlighting the prominence of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) and changes to who controls the Adult Education Budget (AEB). This effectively puts the regions in charge of their own skills future, even if the Department for Education will retain a quasi-supervisory capacity over the LSIPs themselves. The test will be the extent to which the DfE is willing to defer responsibility, and whether regional powers will be able to harness local employers while remaining mindful of emerging markets and opportunities.

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