The further education (FE) sector has given a warm, but cautious, welcome to the FE Skills for Jobs White Paper, which was finally published on 21 January 2021.
We echo that welcome and, as a firm, having supported the Skills Commission inquiry report, published in spring 2020, we are delighted that this influential report receives several mentions in the FE White Paper.
There is no doubt that the FE sector is currently front and centre of the government's thinking when it comes to post-16 education. The White Paper had been trailed through the autumn by Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, as suggesting an "exciting and bold" future that was to "put employers at the heart of the system". So, does the White Paper do that?
Employers and skills
The White Paper certainly suggests that the government wants to put employers at the heart of post-16 skills. Employers will be asked to work with FE colleges, other providers and local stakeholders to develop new Local Skills Improvement Plans. There will also be an alignment of post-16 technical education and training to employer-led standards. FE Colleges will also be encouraged to establish “College Business Centres” to work with local employers in a designated sector.
The FE White Paper also seeks to “provide the skills that the nation needs”. An expansion of the government's flagship Institute of Technology programme is promised, as is an increased rollout of "T Levels".
Lifetime Skills Guarantee and funding
Perhaps the biggest announcement from the FE White Paper was made by the Prime Minister last autumn, which was the “Lifetime Skills Guarantee” - funding technical courses for adults, at the equivalent of A-level, where individuals have not already got equivalent qualifications.
The White Paper builds on this announcement, indicating the "Lifelong Loan Entitlement" will be provided by 2025, subject to consultation, giving the equivalent of up to four years post-18 education to be funded by a loan system.
The White Paper also includes a consultation on reforms to FE funding with a view to streamlining it, seeks to strengthen governance of FE institutions and promises £1.5bn of capital funding to improve FE college campuses. Finally, the White Paper also indicates the launch of a national recruitment campaign for teachers in FE.
Does the FE White Paper fall short of expectations?
The welcome given to the FE Skills White Paper is a warm one, rather than a hot one, because there were raised expectations about what the White Paper might deliver, given its lengthy trailing by the Secretary of State. In the end, it arguably falls short in a number of areas or leaves questions unanswered.
In particular, the vexed question of long-term funding is not addressed and that is likely to have to wait for the government's Comprehensive Spending Review in due course.
The White Paper focuses on technical skills, but there is less information about adult education more generally, such as digital skills, English for speakers of other languages, and basic skills such as maths.
Further, the level of devolution to local areas, whilst mentioned, is perhaps not as crucial to the sector’s future as expected.
Finally, the fact that initiatives are either to be employer-led or employer driven gives cause for concern to some. There is no doubt that employers will have a lot on their plates post-pandemic and post-Brexit.
Employer led initiatives have not always been successful in the past and the government's proposal to put employers at the heart of the system may not lead to the progress that is hoped for, or anticipated.
Show us the money
Ultimately FE needs to be affordable, accessible and attractive. The FE Skills White Paper goes some way to providing this, but many questions remain to be answered and, whilst the FE sector will welcome the government’s focus, confirmation of funding for the initiatives would be even more welcome.
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