After the experience of 2016, it seems somewhat foolish to try and predict what 2017 might hold. Nonetheless, here goes. And I'll be brave in saying that I think 2017 can be a year of optimism for the learning and skills sector.
There's an old Soviet joke that goes: “This year will be an average year. Worse than last year, but better than next year.” In recent years, it has too often felt like that for many involved in learning and skills as cuts in public spending and the loss of more than 1 million learning opportunities. And many don't expect that to change. Indeed, thinktanks suggest the last decade has been the worst time for growth in living standards since the Napoleonic War, with things not likely to improve over the next year as growth slows and inflation rises.
But in the learning and skills sector, there's five big changes coming that, if we can shape them, will mean a brighter future ahead.
The five big changes for FE and skills
- The apprenticeship levy. The levy will be a fundamental transformation in how large employers engage in apprenticeships. At the Learning and Work Institute, our focus is on quality and access: making sure everyone who can benefit from an Apprenticeship can access one, and making sure the training is of the highest quality. Today too many groups miss out, and there's a risk that a dash for 3 million compromises quality. But mitigating that risk is in our hands: together we must push for policy to enable quality and access, and work with employers to make that a reality.
- Brexit. The prime minister has pledged to trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017. All else equal, that means we will leave the European Union in 2019. We need to argue as a sector for social investment to be maintained at the same levels as European Social Fund – that should have just as high a priority as continuing funding for agriculture and universities. Just as important is investing differently: the replacement for the Europena Social Fund should have longer-term funding and be devolved where possible to city-regions. We need to come together as a sector and make the case for continued social investment – if we don't, then who will?
- Devolution. The government is confirming devolution of the adult education budget to a number of areas across England (though the devil, as always, will be in the detail). This sits alongside the area review process and elections for metro mayors in May 2017. This gives us a real chance to work with devolved areas and the new mayors to shape an integrated learning, skills and employment strategy and tailor approaches to local need.
- Social justice. A social justice strategy is expected early in 2017. This is part of delivering Theresa May’s promise of a country that works for everyone. Learning and skills are central to this. For example, the evidence is overwhelming that a basic platform of skills, including literacy, numeracy and digital, are essential to social inclusion and access to jobs and careers. And the Casey Review showed the importance of language skills to integration. As a sector we need to show how we are helping to deliver social justice and how we can underpin the Government’s ambition to go further.
- The Skills Plan. 2017 will see the next steps in implementing the Skills Plan, including new routes for technical education and setting up the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. Recent decades are littered with jettisoned reports on this subject, and you would be forgiven for having reform fatigue. But the aim of the Skills Plan is surely right, we have a committed minister, and so I would argue the task is to make sure it works. For example, we have argued that benchmarking world class quality should be a key role for the new institute.
All of these changes present great challenges as well as great opportunities. The learning and skills sector has amazing people and institutions working hard every day to create and spread opportunity. I'm optimistic that we can work together to make a success of the big changes ahead. The success of our country and progress toward social justice depend on us doing so.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute