Is now the best of times or the worst of times for FE?

There are good ideas in the FE White Paper – but some groups most in need don't get a mention, says Gordon Marsden
26th January 2021, 6:27pm
Gordon Marsden


Is now the best of times or the worst of times for FE?
Fe White Paper: Gordon Marsden Asks If This Is The Best Of Times Or The Worst Of Times For Fe

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Dickens' opening words to A Tale of Two Cities buzzed around my head as the Skills for Jobs White Paper came out. At a time of national crisis and huge loss, the imperative must be speedy relief for all whose jobs and skills are  blighted by Covid, while offering a strategy of hope for future skills and new life chances post-pandemic.

That's why the Right to Learn campaign was published last week - a five-themes manifesto to assess those challenges: breaking down barriers across education, integrating skills and initiatives within government, empowering communities to access and shape these, tackling inequalities and need, and increasing investment.

In full: The Skills for Jobs White Paper proposals

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Association of Colleges: We're at a turning point for further education

OpinionWhy we shouldn't welcome the FE White Paper

Sadly, however, this White Paper has missed a raft of opportunities to deliver these goals. The most glaring is a lack of coordination with the Kickstart scheme run by the Department for Work and Pensions to complement the apprenticeships and traineeships , currently in crisis at historic lows.

Putting employers at the heart of the FE system has been a government mantra since at least 2012, yet there is little here that recognises the crucial role of small businesses - the lifeblood of many communities - or that of the learning and employment providers who take through the majority of apprenticeships.

FE White Paper: What about left-behind towns?

Little is said either about the importance of "place" - left-behind towns and silenced communities, as well as disadvantaged groups there -  despite the mounting pile of reports in and out of Parliament testifying to this. The White Paper should include a statutory right to learn, hand in hand with reviving local economies, productivity and future-facing jobs.

Any increased funding and pledges of a leading role for colleges is welcome. But it needs more than just a recruitment campaign for new individuals to teach there. After years of pay gaps widening with schools, existing FE staff also need bold improvements in salaries, service conditions and professional development.

Working with local business groups and chambers of commerce may help, but a huge swathe of other local groups are absent  from this White Paper - the self employed, co-operatives, local and national third sector bodies and trade unions. As for the key roles for other local statutory bodies, councils, mayors, combined authorities - barely a mention.

And yet, throughout the traumas of this pandemic, it has been NHS and care staff, public health and logistical planners, not Whitehall or its private surrogates, that have been the most effective delivery agents, including FE and HE in tandem. I saw  this as shadow skills minister and a Blackpool MP in recruitment from the local community across all ages for health and social care qualifications across East London and West Lancashire.

With the UK hosting this year's UN climate change conference, why isn't an ambitious green new deal, fuelled by local demand, included in the White Paper? Thousands of younger climate change apprentices, as well as older workers reskilled in the new green technologies, would dent the disgrace of so many still lacking basic skills and nearly 800,000 16-24 NEETs [those not in education, employment or training] .

Nor are others with potential challenges included in the White Paper. Ex-service personnel, care leavers, people with disabilities, carers (young and old), BAME communities, ex-offenders, those on ESOL courses are groups whose lives, earning potential and self-worth can be transformed by FE.

Ofqual has just called on the government to review proposals for a vast cull of BTEC qualifications, citing how such groups could be particularly hit. There are also fears that the centrally dictated Department for Education list of qualifications at Level 3 will exclude many adults from eligibility for the free Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and be socially regressive.

What's crucial is that learners of all ages have the right to reskill for new careers and jobs of the future - not simply to be "Gradgrinded" to satisfy existing requirements from current employers. They also need supporting by a new countrywide careers and IAG service - not just with the upgrading a website. If government wants to make a success of new higher qualifications, it must expand Levels 2 and 3 as a pipeline.

There are good ideas in the White Paper - such as funding modular courses to help us catch up with other countries worldwide already ahead of us in blending digital and online learning, and cutting through the educational silos that the Lifelong Learning Commission (which spurred our current Right to Learn campaign ), the College of the Future and others have drawn attention to. But as the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, has said, "millions of people need training opportunities now, not in a matter of months or years". For today, and for all our futures, there is not a moment to lose.

Gordon Marsden is a former shadow FE, skills and HE minister and a member of the steering group for Right to Learn


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