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Skills at top of agenda in FE White Paper

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The Department for Education has published its long-awaited FE White Paper, but is it enough? We look at what’s new and what’s outstanding.

Last week, the DfE published the FE White Paper, reputed to build on the Augar Review into further and higher education.

There is much that is positive about the White Paper – it builds on work already being undertaken in colleges around the country while teasing out some of the blocks in the system when it comes to skills training.

Among the proposals are:

  • Local Skills Improvement Plans to enhance relationships between employers and colleges; for example, Chambers of Commerce and other business groups assisting with course content and college business centres. These plans will be supported by a £65m Strategic Development Fund.
  • To boost uptake and quality of Higher Technical Qualifications.
  • To enforce the Baker Clause so that every child from year seven and above will be given advice on further technical/academic qualifications.
  • Flexible, modular and blended learning in adult education.
  • A lifetime loan entitlement from 2025, meaning access to loans for skills training as well as academic training.
  • Plans to overhaul funding and accountability of colleges; for example, new ministerial powers to intervene over failing colleges and a review of multi-year funding. Multi-year funding was intended to be part of the proposals, but the Treasury imposed a one-year funding plan.
  • A nationwide recruitment campaign to boost recruitment talent.

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute, argues that while the White Paper should be commended for focusing on the importance of, and potential investment in, education and skills, how government plans to increase employer involvement and encourage them to invest in skills is unclear. The White Paper, he says, should go further on:

  • Investment – the proposals include little new money.
  • Basic skills – literacy and numeracy.
  • More focus on level 2 retraining, as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee is only focused on level 3.
  • Aligning skills with employment support schemes like Kickstart and Restart.

Says Evans:

“It’s great the White Paper puts further education centre stage – there’s lots of positives already in train to shout about, and some interesting new ideas.  But to avoid becoming another footnote in the history of skills policy, we’ll need long-term funding and commitment to more radical action.  

“Perhaps not a giant leap, but hopefully several steps in the right direction.”

However, Sally Dicketts, President of the Association of Colleges, said that while they hope to use the consultation period to resolve any issues:

“I am optimistic because never, in my 37 years in the FE sector, have I seen government put colleges onto the centre stage and recognise the important role we undoubtedly play in achieving social mobility, greater equality and diversity and enabling economic growth and recovery.”

Aptem has always embraced positive reforms that encourage education and skills. We recognise that they are important, not just for the prosperity of our country, but because they offer people opportunities to improve their lives.

There is much in this White Paper to be pleased about. Bringing business into the fold of the FE sector is, of course, nothing new. But systematising their involvement in the curriculum may just bring about a growth of interest in investment from them too. Encouraging, and funding, more flexible and blended learning options is something we have long argued for.

Loans for college students is an important idea, particularly since the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance discouraged many from pursuing further education.

Like many other commentators, we would like to see a commitment to multi-year funding arrangements to permit long-term planning. And for us, most importantly, government and college leaders need to see the importance of technology in driving cultural and organisational change.

Richard Alberg, CEO of Aptem, said:

“The FE White Paper puts colleges and skills into the national focus, critical at a time when so many jobs are being affected by the pandemic and other, long-term changes in employment. We look forward to ongoing consultation from the education sector to ensure the White Paper is as good as it can be. Our future as a country depends on it.”

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