Why are training providers missing from FE White Paper?

FE partnerships shouldn't be just between colleges and employers, but training providers, too, says Mark Dawe
26th January 2021, 4:26pm
Mark Dawe


Why are training providers missing from FE White Paper?

Fe White Paper: Why Are Training Providers Missing?

Much has, and will be, written about Skills for Jobs, the FE White Paper. I am looking at it from the perspective of an independent training provider (ITP) delivering online learning and supporting others with online systems and resources.

Overall, I like the paper and I was pleasantly surprised by the tone and the direction. A large proportion is a consolidation of previous announcements, but we are starting to see a real coherence and direction of travel. For those who have been in the sector since incorporation, there is a wry smile, having seen many of these ambitions before. This doesn't make them wrong, but we must learn from the mistakes of the past when treading the precarious path of implementation. 

There are elements of the White Paper about the workforce and information advice and guidance that get a big tick. Apprenticeships and traineeships, along with maths, English and digital, being at the heart of the offer is welcome. Some would argue that this FE White Paper has more impact on HE than FE. History tells us that so much depends on the implementation of the aspirations, and there are definitely some questions to ask.

In full: The Skills for Jobs White Paper proposals

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OpinionWhy we shouldn't welcome the FE White Paper

The centrality of employers is right and is a thread throughout the paper. Through the apprenticeship reform, lessons have been learned about the challenges of a purely "employer-led" approach. There is definitely a shift towards the far more appropriate "employer-informed" approach, allowing the experts in curriculum, assessment and delivery to translate the employers' goals into a high-performing, quality FE offer. The proposed system will focus on outcomes and jobs, which is right, especially given the current state of the economy. 

Skills for Jobs White Paper: What about independent training providers?

Colleges have a vital role to play in the FE system, especially in their localities. The strength and success of ITPs is flexibility, innovation and laser-like focus on delivering what employers want and need. Critically, when the government talks about local partnership, it has left out the third leg of the stool - colleges, employers and ITPs. ITPs aren't just there to "fill the gaps", they are a crucial part of the employer-responsive delivery system and this three-way partnership is far more potent than the sum of the parts. 

At the Skills Network, we are proud of our partnership with over 150 colleges (and a similar number of ITPs). Those colleges wouldn't be working with us if we didn't add value and high quality to their local offers. There is certainly no objection to the demands for raising the quality bar for ITPs. However, they don't deserve singling out and this should be for the whole FE system. If we just replaced the term "sub-contracting" with "partnership", the FE eco-system could be described as highly responsive, multi-dimensional and collaborative in meeting the many demands placed on all providers.

The stated desire to move away from what are described as "low-value short courses" and the noticeable absence in the White Paper of any real strategy for the desperate need for level 2 and below is disappointing, to say the least. For a large proportion of the population and the most disadvantaged, level 2 is vital. It is disappointing, but not surprising, as it is a continuation of the government's desire to focus on higher levels and forget those trying to reach the first rung of the ladder, let alone move up the lower rungs.

I am sure there are odd examples of what ITPs and colleges offer that might fall under this disparaging label, but you can count them on one hand. How does this view align with the thousands of employers who support their staff to undertake these qualifications, the amazing success rates, and the incredible progression, which is rightly identified as crucial in the White Paper? For those out of work, the majority of these courses are the gateway to work and further learning. 

In a rather contradictory fashion, the government states its desire to support short-duration training along with credit accumulation and transfer. Apparently, that is only required and supported for those at level 4 and above. I support this approach 100 per cent but why remove something at level 1 and 2 that is, to all intents and purposes, doing the same? Don't these learners, and the employers that support them, deserve the same attention and approach? Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth, but only for some. 

Online learning: the Martini of education and training

What about online learning and all that goes with it? There is an explicit commitment to support digital and remote learning and a desire to invest in digital resources and share them across the sector. Hoorah! Since I started working in FE, I have been trying to get the sector to share. The reason I joined the Skills Network was to create and share amazing resources for the sector, employers, and learners. This I have learned: good resources are hard to create, they require constant review and updating, they have to sit on an online system that ensures the learner learns and they must tick all the boxes of high-quality learning. This is something we hear from Ofsted, among others, every week. 

As well as tapping into the incredible expertise of online resource developers, the platform to deliver these resources needs to support the learner, the tutor and the provider. Initial assessments, resources, embedded classrooms and forums, formative assessment, tracking learners, access to tutors online, final assessment capability are a must for an online system. It is the only way to ensure an overall experience that equals, if not exceeds, that of face-to-face delivery.  

I have previously commented that when we talk about online learning, it encapsulates such a range and so much of what is offered online, it mirrors a "library" rather than a "classroom". Online learning is the Martini of education and training - any time, any place, anywhere - which can transform the experience for employers and those in learning.

But there is so much more that has to be in place to ensure an outstanding experience. It can't be a one-off government initiative that is then shelved and leaves an outdated legacy and no future. It has to be embedded in the FE system. There has to be a genuine partnership between providers and those who have the expertise to develop and support our online future. This is the only way to ensure a sustainable, value-for-money, 21st-century approach to further education at every level from entry to a higher technical level 5.

All of this is possible under the umbrella of the White Paper. There is a worrying silence on some of these critical points and they mustn't be ignored. As we move forward, let us ensure we implement an FE and HE system that the country needs and deserves.

Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Skills Network

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