The long awaited Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was introduced to Parliament on 18 May, putting in legislative form the proposals brought forward by the government in the skills for jobs white paper published in January of this year.
The Bill includes a number of important changes to the further education (FE) sector, and will involve greater powers being allocated to the Secretary of State for Education.
What are the key changes?
In the government’s own words, the key changes are:
- Embedding employers in the heart of the skills system, by making it a legal requirement that employers and colleges collaborate to develop skills plans so that the training on offer meets the need of local areas, and so people no longer have to leave their home-towns to find great jobs;
- Supporting the transformation of the current student loans system which will give every adult access to a flexible loan for higher-level education and training at university or college, useable at any point in their lives; and
- Introducing new powers to intervene when colleges are failing to deliver good outcomes for the communities they serve, and to direct structural change where needed to ensure colleges improve.
How the Bill seeks to achieve the key changes
The Bill, if enacted, will require the development of local skills improvement plans and places an obligation on college governing bodies to regularly review provision in relation to local skills need.
At this stage there is a lack of information in the Bill about how the “lifelong loan entitlement”, trumpeted in the white paper, and intended to make student loan finance available for an equivalent of four years’ study throughout life across post-compulsory further and higher education, will work. The government has promised more information on this as the Bill progresses through Parliament.
The structural changes referred to will potentially include forced mergers, which if actually used, will demonstrate a far greater willingness on the part of the government to intervene in the sector.
A number of sector leaders have cautiously welcomed the plans, albeit with some degree of alarm raised by what many see as a centralisation of powers in the hands of the Department for Education and with the Secretary of State.
Renewed importance of the further education sector
At the very least, the plans and the surrounding messaging from the government, are a further illustration of the renewed importance being placed on the FE sector post Brexit.
This is surely a welcome sign, and the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, has said that: “[The] legislation is confirmation that colleges will be central to the country’s economic recovery. For too long the snobbery towards further education has meant it’s been neglected and the Skills and Post 16 Education Bill is a chance to put that right.”
The changes also represent a pivot away from a focus on the higher education (HE) sector, with the government being at pains to emphasise the importance of FE in helping the country to recover from the economic impact of Covid-19, as well as speaking to the government’s much talked about “levelling up” agenda.
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We will continue to analyse the Bill, and monitor for details yet to emerge, as it progresses through Parliament.
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