'The adult skills budget will continue to shrink. FE will have to adapt'

David Harbourne, acting chief executive of the Edge Foundation, writes:

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Back in March, the outgoing coalition government published a consultation paper on the “dual mandate” for adult vocational education.

The deadline for replies passed a few days ago. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the new government does with the stack of responses piled up on some poor official’s desk.

Before submitting our own response, Edge went to the East Midlands to discuss the future of FE with a group of college principals and governors, business leaders and others with a strong interest in technical education, training and careers. Unsurprisingly, we failed to stick to the script. It’s impossible to consider adult learning without looking at FE as a whole.

Here’s a striking statistic to kick things off. In 2014, 28 per cent of members of the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce reported difficulties in recruiting people with the right skills. This year, the figure is 60 per cent.

That begs an obvious question: with record numbers of young people in education and training, why are there still skills shortages?

Our consultation came up with a whole set of answers. One is that the FE and skills funding system takes insufficient account of economic priorities. The Skills Funding Agency rarely (if ever) asks colleges about the skills needs of employers in the sectors and regions they serve. Funding and accountability systems are driven by recruitment, retention and success rates, not skills shortages.

In addition, level 4 provision has dwindled since polytechnics became universities. The trend has accelerated in recent years because the higher education funding system has encouraged universities to switch to full three-year bachelor degrees in place of HNDs and foundation degrees.

Third, it has been easier to grow provision in some sectors than others. Rapid growth in business administration apprenticeships has not been matched in the construction sector, for example.

Fourth, quantity has taken priority over quality: there has been too much accreditation of existing skills among adults aged 24 and over, too much level 2 provision and too many short programmes for existing employees. Until recently, some apprenticeships were completed in six months, compared with three to four years in Austria and Germany. The apprenticeship brand has been devalued by volume-driven targets.

Of course, responsibility for skills and productivity isn’t one-sided. Employers haven’t invested enough in skills, either.

Finally, there is the artificial and unhelpful academic/vocational divide, which pushes some young people towards general study at 18 and over (such as degrees in humanities, social sciences and the arts) and others towards vocational courses, which are perceived as somehow “second best”. In reality, people need a blend of knowledge and skills spanning both fields. The stretching maths content of many advanced and higher apprenticeships is a case in point. However, this fact has not yet fully registered with young people, teachers or parents.

So where does that leave FE in an era of shrinking budgets?

As a starting point, our consultation group agreed that FE needs to make a better case for itself. Productivity has to be at the heart of the argument: with the UK lagging behind international competitors, FE needs to emphasise the direct connection between workplace skills and productivity. The Association of Colleges, 157 Group and Niace are already making this case very well. We have to get behind them and turn up the volume.

Employers are reluctant to employ 16- to 18-year-olds. In addition, many schools don’t want young people or parents to know about apprenticeships or their local FE college. Expanding apprenticeships for this age group will always be an uphill struggle. The main focus therefore needs to be on apprenticeships for 19- to 24-year-olds, and second chances for people who do not achieve their potential at school.

For colleges, that will mean focusing on pre-apprenticeship programmes which provide a clear line of sight to associate professional pathways, including apprenticeships at levels 3-5, HNCs/HNDs and professional qualifications.

On the other hand, more young people might remain in schools of various forms, including university technical colleges and studio schools, instead of transferring to colleges at 16. In addition, funding pressures could lead to a reduction in expensive programmes.

It’s a racing certainty that the adult skills budget will continue to shrink. FE will have to adapt. The European Social Fund will remain available to support pathways to employment, but there will be more co-investment by employers and learners, including adult learner loans. FE will have to deliver what employers and learners want, at the times and places they demand. In that context, local enterprise partnerships and city regions could well play a growing role in the years to come. In addition, there will be a continuing need for adult literacy and numeracy programmes, including English for speakers of other languages (Esol) for migrants.

The government expects colleges to develop bespoke provision for employers – and, of course, many already do. One of the lessons learned is that employers will only fully value training programmes if they know the true cost. Always open the offer with a clear statement: “This apprenticeship costs £X.” Only then should you say, “After government grants, the cost to you falls to £Y.”

To end on a positive note, our consultation group was unanimous that FE will adapt and evolve. It has before; it will again.

In short: give us the mission and we’ll do the job.

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