Budget 2021: Why we need to move to skills accounts

The current system of adult funding simply isn’t working. We need to move to the introduction of skills accounts, writes Mark Dawe

Mark Dawe

What will the budget say about adult education?

This week’s unemployment figures have served as another reminder as to where the chancellor’s priorities should lie in tomorrow's Budget. According to Learning and Work Institute analysis, there are more than half a million young adults unemployed and the number of people claiming Universal Credit has doubled from pre-pandemic levels to 6 million in January 2021, around 40 per cent of whom are in work. All this is happening to the labour market while the furlough scheme protects it from a much worse impact considering that almost 5 million workers were on the scheme in January.

It strengthens the case for a major increase in the adult education budget (AEB) in tomorrow's Budget to help tens of thousands of people who want to use skills programmes to get back into work or further their career. This would come on top of the Plan for Jobs initiatives, which were mainly aimed at young people, and the impending launch of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee for adults.

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It is the latter that, although welcome, shows again that the current system of adult funding simply isn’t working and that we need to move to the introduction of skills accounts as soon as possible to go hand in hand with a budget increase. Although officially launched as part of the National Skills Fund, funding for the Lifetime Skills Guarantee is actually wrapped up with the adult education budget (AEB) and it has not got off to an auspicious start. Education ministers should therefore push forward with their commitment in the Skills for Jobs White Paper to a simplification of adult budgets rather than it becoming another forgotten soundbite. 

Let me say as a former college principal that there will always be thousands of adult learners who will prefer classroom provision that enables them to progress. However, the current funding system is limiting the range of learning choices of those who would like to say “Bravo, Boris. I like your guarantee and I want to take advantage of it”. We might get a government media blitz at the beginning of April with the prime minister visiting a college to meet a group of level 3 students, but the danger is expectations will be unduly raised to which the sector is unable to respond.

Imagine instead if interested adult learners were able to go online to the equivalent of the government’s Find an apprenticeship portal for the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and other adult learning and use a personal learning account to choose an accredited course that could be delivered in the classroom, workplace, entirely online or via blended learning. Demand would be so much higher. And then once we have shown it can work, it could be rolled out for all government-funded adult courses. 

Moreover, employers could top up with financial contributions for their workers just like SMEs pay 5 per cent of an apprentice’s training costs on the digital apprenticeship service. The Education and Skills Funding Agency has shown that it can be done for apprenticeships and so it shouldn’t be too difficult to repeat something similar for adult education. Simplification would be achieved easily, justifying an increase in funding and helping to reduce the massive bill for Universal Credit as people improve their skills to move up to better-paid roles.

At the Skills Network, we see the demand for learning daily from people who refuse to accept that the pandemic is going to destroy their livelihoods but the tired old discredited approach to funding adult education makes it harder for providers like us to respond. The current system was designed years ago with an expectation that the vast majority of learners were happy to travel into their local college and sit in a classroom, daytime or evening. 

But the world is very different now. Our learners are often juggling more than one job while maintaining family and childcare commitments. They want the option of online or blended learning and high-quality programmes are available to meet that demand. We can also give them access to tutors with up-to-date sector experience and the whole package can be a highly efficient means of delivery. Investment in the resources and technology is certainly not cheap. We are not asking for handouts; what we are asking for is certainty and equal access to students. 

When we develop resources and the technology, we don’t just keep it to ourselves. Our fully online programmes are available to all providers at a fraction of the cost of developing the programme, and for the provider or college, a fraction of the cost of delivering the programme. This suddenly opens up the opportunity to release valuable tutor resource to provide genuine personalised support for every learner whatever the need. Having worked in FE for over 25 years, the opportunities that this provides colleges, providers, learners and employers really excites me.

I hope that Rishi Sunak has undertaken a serious review of his Plan for Jobs measures which will be reflected in the Budget. With only 2,000 starts, Kickstart, for example, has hardly been a rip-roaring success. Perhaps young people are looking at the scheme and noticing that it doesn’t promise them any proper training. The chancellor deserves credit for his passionate championing of adult learning, apprenticeships and traineeships and what he needs to do is link Kickstart to these training programmes in order for young people to see a clear route to progression. He needs to provide a funding framework that facilitates genuine individual and employer choice and an approach that provides a reassurance of stability to enable investment and innovation to flourish.

Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Skills Network

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