Skills for Jobs White Paper: The FE sector reacts

Sector leaders welcome today's White Paper – but urge the government to back up its vision with long-term investment
21st January 2021, 6:00am
Kate Parker


Skills for Jobs White Paper: The FE sector reacts
Fe White Paper: What Does The Sector Think?

The long-awaited Skills for Jobs White Paper will be published by the Department for Education today, including recommendations on the FE sector's relationship with employers, accountability, funding, teacher training and development. 

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the reforms "are at the heart" of plans to build back better after the pandemic, ensuring that "technical education and training is based on what employers want and need". 

But what do the sector leaders think?

FE White Paper: Employers to design almost all courses

At a glance: The key recommendations from the White Paper

Background: White Paper will be 'exciting and bold', says Williamson

Reaction to the FE White Paper

'Government needs to increase funding'

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges

"These are concrete plans which can deliver the government's levelling up commitments. Colleges have been calling for this, after years of being overlooked and underutilised. But government has to not only recognise the vital college role, it also needs to increase funding. Colleges have shown during the pandemic that they are the vehicle to transforming lives, and supporting communities and employers, and we need the spending review this year to invest more in them. Today's White Paper will stimulate demand from people and employers and unshackle colleges from unhelpful policy and bureaucracy, ready for the Treasury to show that it recognises that spending on skills is an investment with a strong return. 

"The reforms build on what colleges already do well, so it's not about taking a wrecking ball to existing infrastructure or making colleges start from scratch, but investing in them to play a bigger part in supporting local businesses and local communities. Colleges share the ambition of a skills system which helps people on their journey to good work and supports their progression to higher-paid jobs.

"Achieving that will require stronger collaboration with more employers, chambers of commerce and business groups but also directly through new college business centres. This has the potential to engage thousands more SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] to help them build their businesses, whilst supporting more people in a shifting economy and labour market.

"The new lifelong loan entitlement, offering flexible student finance, will make it easier for more adults to retrain as the labour market and jobs change. This drive to widen access to skills for all is exciting, but it is vital that students have personal financial support while training and studying to ensure that everybody can participate at all levels of learning.

"The White Paper sets out a big and positive agenda for colleges to help co-design with government and with employers, and there are many details to fill in. As we successfully build a better post-18 system, we will urge the government to work with us on similar co-design of the 14 to 19 education phase and on how higher education needs to change to work more collaboratively with colleges."

'A sea-change in government thinking on skills'

Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee

"The proposals from the prime minister and department for education mark a sea-change in government thinking on skills. 

"It will help address our skills deficit by boosting the accessibility of technical qualifications alongside the lifetime skills guarantee. It meets the needs of businesses in building an employed-led system, working with FE, to design employer qualifications and ensure funding follows employer requirements. It will give those from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to climb the skills ladder of opportunity, through the skills guarantee and easier access to finance. It is good that new funding will be made available in areas where colleges work with employers to transform their skills offering.

"'Build back better' clearly means building back a skills nation. I am really excited by these plans."

'Proposals need unpicking'

Jane Hickie , Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director:

"The government has adopted the right approach to reform bearing in mind that we are in an economic recession. The emphasis should be on learners finding jobs or retraining.

"Independent training providers have led the way in the growth of apprenticeships and they are also major drivers of provision in traineeships, study programmes, ESF projects and adult education. Therefore the proposals for chamber-led Local Skills Improvement Plans for programmes other than apprenticeships need careful unpicking and piloting, involving all the key stakeholders.

"The reforms for careers advice, especially in relation to the Baker Clause, receive an unreserved welcome from AELP. The extension of the Baker Clause's scope to year 7 pupils is fantastic because this will help raise awareness about apprenticeships further and address issues such gender stereotyping in certain professions.

"Strengthened accountability for provider performance is supported but we have been here a few times before.  We have always supported provider accountability for performance and this remains an important part of sector management to ensure that good performance is rewarded.  We hope that real teeth are evident from now in tackling poor quality and that a good track record of delivery is properly recognised in future contract awards, whether the funding system is local or national.

"AELP and its members looks forward to playing a full part in taking the proposed reforms forward."

'Many of the proposals will be welcomed by colleges'

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

"Today's White Paper helpfully summarises the government's plans for technical education and training, particularly for those over the age of 18. Many of the proposals will be welcomed by colleges that deliver courses aimed at meeting the needs of local employers. Our members will continue to prepare young people for higher education and skilled employment by offering the sort of broad education we know is valued by individuals, employers and universities."

'A sorely missed opportunity to create a world class further education system'

UCU general secretary Jo Grady

 "Sadly, this white paper is likely to be remembered as a sorely missed opportunity to create a world class further education system. The government says it will launch a new economic dawn for the country, and that outstanding college teachers will be recruited to give young people the best possible education. But any new recruitment drives are doomed to fail without an increase in staff pay and improvements to working conditions. If the government really wants to attract new industry talent to work in colleges, its priority must be to close the £9000 gap between college and school teachers.

'The white paper does nothing to address the failed experiment of incorporation, where a combination of needless competition, fragmentation and drastic underfunding has left colleges and communities poorer. Colleges must be back brought back into national ownership so we can ensure a more accountable and strategic approach which focuses resources towards staff and students.

"Although the white paper does recognise the need for more stable long-term funding in the sector, it is concerning that the government is planning to load students with even more debt by extending loans in further education. Education is a public good and should be publicly funded.

"The focus throughout the white paper is on employers rather than staff and students, but the value of education is not just whether it fills skill gaps and improves productivity. Indeed, as the government seeks to deal with the long-term fallout from the current public health crisis it is disappointing to see such little focus on the wider benefits of lifelong learning for mental health, wellbeing and community cohesion. The government must take a much wider view of the purposes of teaching and learning. That expansive understanding - not simply the demands of employers - should be what informs teacher education for the sector." 

'It's a work in progress'

Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

"The federation cautiously welcomes the publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper. The narrative helps frame a direction of travel for how the skills sector will evolve and need to respond post-Covid, particularly as we build a more dynamic economy based on higher levels of productivity and skills.

"This White Paper is perhaps not quite as comprehensive as it could have been in terms of covering the range of transformational reforms of post-compulsory tertiary education that the review panel envisaged. Flexible loans, for example, won't kick in until after the next general election. Overall, what has been announced today is very much a restatement of what has already been agreed - a useful 'work in progress'. 

"The lifetime skills guarantee at level 3 is very welcome, but it is currently too narrow in scope. We need to see a much wider array of qualifications and flexible credentials being made available at all levels to help meet the needs of both employers and learners. The government's current approach to reform of post-16 is one of restricting learner choice; as well as adversely affecting provider flexibility to meet the needs of some of the most disadvantaged groups in our society. The regulator, Ofqual, made a similar set of points only this week.

"We look forward to the outcome of the comprehensive spending review for the more 'revolutionary' aspects of what was promised previously, in terms of better supporting individuals who will experience several career changes throughout their lives in future. We're not quite there yet with this White paper, as it falls quite a bit short of helping to achieve a more cradle-to-grave, universalist approach to lifelong learning."

'We need to devolve more power to the regions'

Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive, City and Guilds Group

"The shift in emphasis for the FE White Paper towards a Skills for Jobs White Paper is a positive move by the Government in that it at least recognises the clear connection between skills development and progress into meaningful employment. However, it's disappointing that today is focusing on existing announcements instead of a clear vision for how we can collectively reimagine FE for the future.

"Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance of digital learning - so why then, would we choose to focus investment right now on renovating buildings, when this money could be put to much better use by investing in a broader range of flexible, digitally delivered learning to deliver an anytime, anyplace, anywhere approach?

"Where we do agree with the Government is around the fundamental role FE has to play in delivering the skills pipeline of essential talent this country needs today, to grow back from Covid-19 and for years to come, so we can power our recovery and  to fill skills gaps and get our economy firing on all cylinders. But for it to play this role effectively, we need to devolve more power to the regions to decide on the skills interventions most needed to support local jobs markets. I am cautiously optimistic about the nod towards more regional autonomy set out in the White Paper and I hope the College Business Centres will be given the power to decide and act on what works best for local skills needs, working directly with local employers. However, college-based training will not work for everyone, we need flexible funding and a vision that encompasses flexible, digital delivery that is able to take learning to the people. 

"There does appear to be a recognition that the existing top-down funding and policy regime does not match the reality of our increasingly disparate, national economy and we would welcome any moves to give more autonomy to regional administrations to be able to implement bottom-up solutions to meet local skills and employment challenges. 

"Yet what we aren't seeing today is a government seizing the opportunity to act quickly and be bold, taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an FE education system that is fit for purpose and can truly fulfil its role to help get people back into work and create a culture of lifelong learning and nor has it gone anywhere close to connecting the dots between FE and HE, as was so well articulated in the previous Augar report - this is again another missed opportunity."

'We need sustained increases in investment'

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute 

"The government is right to focus on vocational education and learning and this White Paper contains many sensible measures. However, for the reality to match the rhetoric, we need significant and sustained increases in investment, after a decade of cuts that have left millions fewer adults taking part in learning.

"A single White Paper can't solve decades of challenges, so these announcements must only be the start of the change we need. The scale of the challenge to increase the poor availability of apprenticeships for young people, help the 9 million adults who have low basic skills, and support people to retrain during longer working lives demands much greater action.

"To avoid this White Paper becoming yet another footnote in the history of skills policy, we'll need to be more radical and the government will need to back its vision with long-term investment."

The FE White Paper: Key recommendations

  • An "overhaul" of the funding and accountability rules, so funding is better targeted at supporting high-quality education and training that meets the needs of employers, and an introduction of new powers to intervene when colleges are failing to deliver good outcomes for the communities they serve.
  • Employers to have a central role in designing almost all technical courses by 2030 "to ensure that the education and training people receive is directly linked to the skills needed for real jobs".
  • Business groups, including chambers of commerce, to work alongside colleges to develop tailored skills plans to meet local training needs, supported by a £65 million strategic development fund to put the plans into action and establish new college business centres to drive innovation and enhanced collaboration with employers.
  • New higher technical qualifications to be introduced in September 2022, which will be supported by government-backed brand and quality work.
  • A change in the law so that from 2025 people can access flexible student finance so they can train and retrain throughout their lives, supported by funding in 2021-22 to test ways to boost access to more modular and flexible learning.
  • A nationwide recruitment campaign to get more talented individuals to teach in further education, and investment in high-quality professional development including a new workforce industry exchange programme. 

'A vital opportunity for a brighter future'

Amanda Melton, chief executive and principal of the Nelson and Colne College Group and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future

"The UK government's commitment to reshaping the skills system marks the first time in many years that English colleges are put front and centre of major policy reform proposals. Today's FE White Paper represents a vital opportunity for a brighter future for the many people, communities and businesses colleges support, with colleges recognised as vehicles to build back better.

"For too long English colleges' role in the education and training system and in supporting people with the skills they need has been undervalued and underfunded. The clear commitment to bolstering further and technical education means that more people will be able to get the skills they need for good jobs and businesses will plug skills gaps. Colleges are well placed to deliver growth in higher technical education and are ready for the transformation required to keep up with the changing world of work.

"To maximise the role of colleges, routes into learning have to be clearer, more flexible and accessible to everyone, from any background and no matter their age. That's why the proposal for a lifelong loan entitlement is an important commitment to giving people the skills they need in a way that suits them with adequate and flexible finance. 

"It's been clear from our work over the past two years that the college sector is willing and able to do much more for people, productivity and place - with the right support and investment from government. I know that people right across the sector are keen to continue leading this conversation - ultimately to ensure that we ensure the quality, capability and capacity of English colleges to deliver what we need from them to create a sustainable, fair and prosperous future."

'The UK needs to up its game'

Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann, chief executive, WorldSkills UK 

"We welcome the focus on driving up the quality of teaching and training to better prepare young people to meet employer and economic development needs. This is vital as we look towards a skills-led recovery. 

"But as the education secretary acknowledges, other major competitor global economies are ahead of us in valuing high quality skills to help drive their competitiveness and productivity.

"Our work on international skills benchmarking shows that the UK has been falling behind, so we have to up our game to help businesses better compete and support global trade ambitions.

"Driving forward the development of high quality skills to support key sectors will not only help attract more economic inward investment in potential growth areas of the economy, like green tech, digital and advanced manufacturing, but also help create high-quality jobs for the next generation.

"Young people and their parents must have faith that the system will prepare them for rewarding, sustainable careers. Teaching standards are at the heart of this and it is good to see the government recognise the new WorldSkills UK Centre of Excellence as a pathfinder using world-class training methods for tens of thousands of students as part of the drive to improve quality.

"Our skills and insight make us uniquely placed to make a significant contribution to help deliver this ambitious package of reforms."

'Careers education is pivotal in helping our next generation'

John Yarham, interim chief executive of the Careers & Enterprise Company 

"The White Paper sets a clear strategy and direction for the future of careers education for young people in England. It recognises the positive progress made and builds on the firm foundations that are in place.

"Careers hubs, careers leaders in schools and colleges and the dynamic partnership between employers and education will be front and centre of driving careers education across the country. This infrastructure, pioneered by CEC over recent years, is at the heart of future careers education development and delivery.

"The role of employers is vital in building on the objective of creating greater parity of esteem between technical, vocational and academic pathways. Not only will this improve the quantity and quality of our skills base but will expand choice and equity in outcomes for young people.

"Careers education is pivotal in helping our next generation make informed choices as they move from education into employment - raising ambition, aspiration and levelling up opportunity.  It will play a critical role in our recovery from the pandemic and our future competitiveness.

"We look forward to working with government, stakeholders and our partners in taking forward this work, putting these plans into action and providing greater opportunity for our young people to make the most of their talents."

'Government must see colleges as strategic partners'

Professor Ewart Keep, co-director of SKOPE and commissioner on the Independent Commission on the College of the Future

"Colleges dedicate significant time and resources to supporting businesses up and down this nation. With the White Paper's proposals - from college business centres to local skills plans - they have a chance to do even more to boost jobs and productivity.

"Putting employers at the heart of the system also means colleges working together in a coordinated approach met by universities. Local plans would mean that the skills system can together even better deliver on skills needs that are reflective of and reactive to local needs.  

"To take full advantage of the transformational potential of colleges these reforms must be met in the long-term with meaningful and sustainable investment so that they empower people with opportunities for lifelong learning and support, to boost productivity and to strengthen every community's sense of place. 

"As we have said in our recent reports, the process is important - and has to reflect a more collaborative approach, with the government seeing colleges as strategic partners in their own future."

'Plans must be backed up with sufficient funding'

David Robinson, director of post-16 and skills at the Education Policy Institute

"It is encouraging to see such a strong focus in the government's White Paper on reskilling, employer engagement and improving the quality and status of technical routes.  

"The government is right to place further education and skills at the heart of its post-covid recovery strategy, but for these ambitions to be realised its plans must be backed up with sufficient levels of funding. A more enduring financial settlement will help to ensure that it can deliver genuine quality throughout the further education sector and offer support to those young people and adults pursuing these pathways - including support with maintenance costs."

'Lifelong learning will be crucial in supporting economic prosperity'

Cindy Rampersaud, senior vice-president for Btec and apprenticeships at Pearson

"We fully support the government's ambition and commitment to raising the status of technical and vocational education. The FE White Paper published today sets out some welcome major changes to the sector, such as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Against a backdrop of rapid change, lifelong learning will be crucial in supporting both social and economic prosperity. 

"However, while the sector needs to flex and adapt, we should be mindful of disrupting or damaging what works well within our existing system - in particular the broad range of high-quality and valuable qualifications which have supported access and progress for a diverse group of learners over a number of years. Post-16, 40 per cent of students take A levels, while 60 per cent pursue a vocational or work-based pathway. We need to maintain the choice for this group between the early specialisation that T levels offer and broader, career-focused qualifications such as Btec." 

'Half baked, recooked and barely joined up initiatives'

Gordon Marsden, former shadow FE minister and member of the steering group for Right2Learn

"What our communities desperately needed from the White Paper was a serious new strategy to enable access to learning for millions whose futures have been blighted by the economic impact of Covid-19. What we have instead is a series of half baked, recooked and barely joined up initiatives which, taken together, completely fail to meet the challenge of the times we are living through. 

"Right2Learn has called upon government to come up with a coherent plan which breaks down barriers within education, integrates services together, empowers local communities to improve access to learning, tackles inequality and increases investment substantially. Yet the White Paper, after months of hype, represents a damp squib."

'A huge boost to our local, regional and national economic needs'

Yiannis Koursis, principal and chief executive, Barnsley College, and chair of the South Yorkshire Principals' Group

"This promise by the government, backed by investment in the sector, will enable us to go even further, drawing on our unique knowledge and specialist expertise providing a huge boost to our local, regional and national economic needs.

"We believe that every adult has the right to life-long education and training, ensuring they have the skills to succeed in the new and future economy. Adult learning drives the economy by ensuring that workers are more skilled, more productive, and happier.

"Barnsley College is best placed to deliver the required education, training and opportunities for all learners. It is welcomed that the government are looking to further support and enhance the sector to help us continue to deliver robust, in-demand training and qualifications, helping us to reignite the economy."

'Disappointing that the government has chosen to put employers at the centre'

Salsabil Elmegri, NUS Vice President for Further Education

"A lifelong learning loan is a very positive step in creating an education system that is truly lifelong, accessible and funded. But if we are to allow people to upskill and retrain for the new economy we need to increase availability of maintenance funding for students and provide grants for learning.

"Proposals around targeting funding towards 'high-quality' education will need to be looked at in detail and the government must recognise the contribution that students in all forms of education make to society. Many students will go on to start their own businesses and help to reboot our economy. It would also be telling if this government has chosen to prioritise subjects that tend to be male-dominated.

"It is disappointing that the government has chosen to put employers right at the centre of this plan but have found no place for those most integral to our education system - the students themselves. Student voice is essential for creating an education system that works for all, and this is a missed opportunity to promote that."

'Technical education has a key role to play'

Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

"We look forward to working with the government to implement this positive vision for a substantial expansion of the employer-led system across technical education.

"Huge progress has already been made in improving quality of skills training thanks to the thousands of employers who work with the Institute. We will keep working to develop a system that supports everyone to gain the skills they need for successful careers. Technical education has a key role to play in getting the economy back on its feet post pandemic."

'The pivotal role that further and technical education'

Graham Guest, principal Telford College 

"We are delighted that the government is seeking to boost the status of vocational education, with a clear message that a university degree isn't the only route to success.

Further education, and technical education, has never been a second-class option in our view - in fact, in these changing times, we feel it has never been more important.

"There is a clear focus on the pivotal role that further and technical education has in helping people get skills for good jobs now and in the future."

'Working together in a strategic and imaginative way'

Liz Bromley chief executive of NCG

"NCG welcomes the White Paper's focus on skills, jobs and opportunity,  which reflects our mission of achieving social mobility through economic prosperity. As we seek to strengthen our Post-COVID, Post-Brexit economy and level up our country, there has never been a greater need to ensure that we deliver the skills our future requires and to make these available to everyone throughout their lifetime.

"All of our seven colleges are firmly rooted in the communities they serve and work closely with local employers to develop their curriculum and vocational offers, so we welcome the drive to place employers at the heart of the skills system.

"The challenge for all of us now - the sector, government and employers - is working together in a strategic and imaginative way to deliver on our shared goal of widening opportunity and increasing prosperity".

'Enthusiastic about working in collaboration'

Ian Pretty, chief executive at Collab Group

 "We welcome the long-awaited Skills for Jobs White Paper. Collab Group and our member colleges support the direction of travel that the white paper sets out. It is encouraging to see the central role that government sees technical and professional education playing in addressing our national challenges. Collab Group and our member colleges are enthusiastic about working in collaboration with Government to develop these proposals in the months ahead."

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