White paper: must go further

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 118 | Spring Term 2 2021

The government’s new further education (FE) white paper is a step in the right direction but fails to recognise the damage done to the sector by the pandemic and falls short of the funding required to truly make it a success says Anne Murdoch.

The government’s white paper, Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth, was launched in January (see tinyurl.com/19y6othx). Intended to boost skills and jobs and reshape training, it is part of the government’s response to Covid, to “Build Back Better”. Employers are central to the vision and with technical education providers they will identify and meet local skills needs. The proposed reforms, which will eventually be enshrined in law, are intended to change post-16 education and training, promote skills and jobs and ensure individuals can gain skills and progress in work at any stage of their lives.

The proposals

The white paper confirms previous announcements on the lifetime skills guarantee, offering retraining for adults without a Level 3 qualification from April and providing skills bootcamps of 12–16 weeks on sector-specific training. This approach will align further and technical education around the needs of employers in sectors where the economy is growing, including in construction, digital, clean energy and manufacturing. Business groups will work with colleges to meet training needs, supported by a strategic development fund, and there will be a change in law so that from 2025, student finance can be accessed throughout one’s life for both training and retraining.

Alongside skills training endorsed by employers, a nationwide recruitment campaign aims to get more teachers into further education, including a workforce industry exchange programme. Additionally, the government plans to change funding and accountability rules, introducing new powers to intervene when colleges fail to deliver good outcomes. A “Build Back Better Business Council” will be launched to support the post-Covid recovery.

The government has called the white paper “revolutionary”, with Gavin Williamson saying the vision will help build a German-style FE system to level-up skills and opportunities, where skills are a key part of the solution to the economic problems caused by Covid. Here is a summary of the main proposals:

  • Local skills planning and funding will come from a Strategic Development Fund with new College Business Centres in each region.
  • Higher technical education at Levels 4 and 5 will be treated in the same way as degrees with a new Lifelong Loan Entitlement by 2025, covering an amount equivalent to four years of post-18 study. Regulators’ roles will be changed: The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) will be given a role in overseeing broader qualifications; Ofsted will inspect apprenticeships at all levels; the Office for Students (OfS) will regulate courses at Level 4 and above; and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) will oversee strategic plans with colleges.
  • Reforms yet to come will simplify funding by removing unnecessary rules, ringfencing and bureaucracy, although there is no additional funding announced at this stage. n Measures will be introduced to increase take-up of apprenticeships, including an online matching service.
  • The National Careers Service’s reach will be expanded and schools will be expected to offer more information on vocational and technical education and apprenticeships.
  • There will be a national FE teacher recruitment campaign to increase existing initiatives, and new regulations for initial teacher training.
  • The DfE will work with the skills sector to introduce new governance standards for recruitment, training, appointment of senior staff and self-assessment.
  • The DfE will have reserve powers to intervene in extreme circumstances in colleges, possibly as an alternative or in addition to the college insolvency regime.
The concerns

A key concern is that the world is different now than when the white paper was originally conceived. The devastating impact of Covid on industry has changed the landscape for many people. Many have lost their jobs and many more see no future in their current work. The numbers of disadvantaged 18 year-olds applying to higher education in 2020 is an indication of the lack of jobs (see tinyurl.com/25sxl5ld), as well as the lack of apprenticeship opportunities available. Colleges have lost millions of pounds from their apprenticeship budgets as there are far fewer new apprenticeship starts and the funding crisis is worse than before for all providers of education and training.

FE undoubtedly needs the purpose outlined for colleges in the white paper, including a national strategy, local and regional accountability, good governance, strong strategic leadership, systems and structures that support one another, a central position in the identification of skills needs and delivery of skills training at all levels.

However, what the government has not yet clarified is the true level of funding required in the long-term to support this major shift in direction, or the implications for 16 to 19 year-olds beyond T levels. There is little in the white paper for wider adult learning, no mechanisms for skills-based programmes to feed into apprenticeships or detail about how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will refer more adults to the new programmes. And there is no recognition of the supportive relationship needed with government and regulators to make all this happen.

The way forward

An improvement in the financial situation will make a big difference to education and training. Starved of cash for so long, nearly half the FE sector is in a much worse financial situation than it was before Covid. Accountability measures introduced within the insolvency regime provide barriers to the change now required of colleges. Funding and accountability measures must be reviewed and appropriate financial support provided. As the recent report of the Public Accounts Committee found, colleges will be unsustainable unless invested in properly (see tinyurl.com/16uwm39c). Funding must support the policy shift proposed in the white paper but not at the expense of the education and training of other parts of the system.

The nature of the changes proposed for technical education and training require curriculum and cultural change across a broad spectrum of providers and employers, working together. This is challenging, given the continuing impact of Covid. The government must listen to the sector and respond to the messages that signal what will work and what won’t, what will take time, what can be achieved quite soon and what support is needed to ensure the changes happen smoothly.

ASCL will be responding to the white paper soon – please let us know what you think about it by emailing anne.murdoch@ascl.org.uk

Dr Anne Murdoch OBE
ASCL Senior Advisor, College Leadership
@ascl_uk

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