It’s unusual for a prime minister to devote an entire speech to further and adult education. And so, when Boris Johnson stood in Exeter College in September to declare now was “the time to fix a problem that has plagued this country for decades”, it felt like a moment.
The sector has been on tenterhooks ever since, waiting for this ever-imminent White Paper to finally add much-needed detail to the PM’s rhetorical flourish. And – to a point – the document does begin to flesh out a transformation in the future of the world of post-16 learning.
Among several welcome reforms, we find the following:
- The re-announcement of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Done right, this will offer flexible finance to adults looking to achieve level 3 qualifications in a way that wasn’t available before.
- The prioritisation of stronger collaboration between employers and businesses through the new college business centres. This isn’t exactly a new idea, but any attempt to make training meet local need is worthwhile.
- A recognition that teachers and lecturers in the FE sector have for too long been thought of as the poorer cousins of those in the school sector, and a signal that this must change.
Good stuff, but pretty much as expected. Unfortunately, the White Paper also lives up to something else that was entirely predictable, given education secretary Gavin Williamson’s involvement: it’s too little, too late.
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Just as with his peculiar claim on the radio this morning that the post-Christmas closure of schools was unexpected, the education secretary seems about two or three steps behind the rest of us.
FE White Paper: What about the problems here and now?
While the continued political focus on the FE sector is to be welcomed, the White Paper does little to address the problems we are facing here and now. Some 600,000 18- to 24-year-olds are predicted to be pushed into unemployment in the coming 12 months whilst the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts unemployment could rise by 6 per cent – twice the level of after the financial crisis of 2008.
Put simply, its ambition is too limited and its pace too slow to be seen as a meaningful response to the unemployment catastrophe unfolding in front of our very eyes.
Perhaps the most compelling entitlement available for those who have lost their jobs during this pandemic is alluded to through a lonely case study buried deep in the paper. It refers to a question from Cheryl aged 54, who has moved to a new area and is struggling to find a job. Her journey into meaningful employment is to undertake a 12-week digital bootcamp with a promise of a fast track to interview and securing a job at the end with a technology firm. It’s clear that these bootcamps are a great idea and will make a real difference to those that get a place, but on their own they are not enough to avoid the problems we are storing up for our economy through mass unemployment.
So what else might be in store from the latest announcement for those already facing the reality of a long dole queue ahead? The Lifetime Skills Guarantee is a welcome step change but clearing the level 3 hurdle will be a challenge for many lower-skilled workers.
And what is the plan for the cohort of 16-,17- and 18-year-olds who have been kept in limbo by the education secretary’s failure to come up with an adequate plan B for exams this summer? There is nothing in this White Paper to give them clarity about their future.
A generation lost
Perhaps this wasn’t the place to talk about the now, but there is nothing in the mood music coming out of government to set the stage for the radical thinking that is needed today to mitigate these immediate challenges. Some 14 per cent of the workforce are still being paid by the government for jobs that might not exist in a few months' time. The government should be looking urgently at joining up the dots between furlough and training to ensure that a generation are not lost.
The truth of the matter is that all these good ideas would have been welcome 12 months ago. But right now – deep in a lockdown, staring down the barrel of the worst economic crash in living memory – the White Paper lacks the urgency of now.
It simply doesn’t have anything like enough answers – be it upskilling, reskilling and retraining – for the millions of workers of all ages and across the whole country who will receive their P45 in the weeks and months ahead.
Anna McShane is the deputy director of Public First