Response to the Government's White Paper Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth
Published 26th January 2021
This week saw the release of the government's long-awaited White Paper setting out its intended direction for Higher Education as the country moves to respond to the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic and the decision to leave the European Union.
Overall, the fact that the government is recognising that the acquisition of skills has for too long been undervalued, can only be a positive sign. There is also clear recognition from the PM in his recent Exeter College speech that this neglect is now having a detrimental impact on the economy. To make the UK fully competitive within a complex market, we need to look beyond investing in the 50% of young people who choose the university route to employment and concentrate on providing opportunities for all.
The Lifetime Skills guarantee is a positive step forward with a guaranteed three-year allowance for all adults to train or retrain at any stage of their life. It is a shame that the intention is not to introduce this until 2025, but that is undoubtedly a treasury response to the current financial uncertainties.
Employers' proposed engagement, putting them "at the heart of the system" is welcome and as it should be. I would, however, add some important caveats to this endorsement.
- Business leaders are very busy people and have limited time and 'bandwidth' for work of this nature that takes them away from the day-to-day priorities. That is not a reason not to include them, but the 'ask' must be clear and concise.
- Asking business opinion cannot only involve the same 'big hitters' who consistently appear to be the only ones consulted. For this White Paper to be effective, it needs to have full buy-in from SMEs nationally. Make UK and other business organisations must be activated to engage their members fully.
The funding mentioned within the paper is, one would hope, only the start of a treasury join-up to fully support this paper. The £1.5 Billion earmarked to bring buildings and facilities up to scratch sounds like a lot, but it will be easy to spend this on estate alone in a system ignored for decades.
There is talk of additional funding to find, recruit, train and employ the next generation of college lecturers and the governance required to ensure quality and consistency of delivery. To be effective, this funding will have to match that found in the mainstream teaching sector; we do not have a large number of technical trainers waiting for the next opportunity, they will have to be grown.
What concerns me most is the lack of join-up between this White Paper's intentions and the mainstream education that comes before it. Whilst I understand that this paper sets a vision for post eighteen learning, one surely cannot do this effectively without considering the educational pathways that may lead a student to this?
The government’s continued fixation with a knowledge-based education up to the age of 18, pretty much ignores the importance of skill acquisition. Design and technology, the only remaining technical qualification left on the mainstream curriculum, is overlooked, marginalised, underfunded and seriously undervalued. Design and technology could provide a rich seam of talent into HE routes. Instead, students fed an academic and assessment led curriculum are somehow expected to switch on creativity, problem-solving and curiosity around a skills-based education at age eighteen.
I am also concerned that the existing suite of technical qualifications available post-16 are being stripped away between now and 2025 to make way for T Levels. I want T Levels to work, I really do, but I think it is fair to say that these qualifications are still surrounded by doubt. Many questions still exist about how universities and employers will view these qualifications. How will the requirement for 45 days' work placement (a laudable objective) be met by employers across various sectors? This shouldn't be an either/or situation; I believe that T Levels can be allowed to grow and prove themselves alongside a suite of established technical qualifications.
To be effective, this paper must be accompanied by a renewed drive to support apprenticeships at all levels (including at degree level). The pandemic has seriously reduced numbers entering via this route. Youth unemployment has risen and will rise further with an estimated 600,000 young people aged 16-24 expected to be pushed into unemployment this year alone.
National solutions proposed by this paper need to be agreed and led by the government, but it will be local intelligence, led by local authorities and LEPs that will be best placed to meet local need and drive engagement.
In summary, there are positives to be found within this paper, and we need to support its intention as, to quote someone who shall remain nameless, "it is all we have got". Its intentions will need to be adequately funded by the treasury, and employers must be heard.
In the paper, the department recognises that the rate of technological change is "fast-quickening”. The education system that we have in place has changed little over the years to reflect this change. I hope that this paper signifies a change of direction and a willingness to look at the big picture as we seek to join up the strands of education and provide opportunity for all.
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