Coronavirus: Employers urge DfE to protect FE sector

Exclusive: A group of employers has written to the government, warning the skills system may collapse without support

Julia Belgutay

A group of leading employers has written to the government, urging ministers to support the FE sector

A group of employers has written to the education secretary and the apprenticeships and skills minister, urging them to support the FE sector during the coronavirus outbreak.

In their letter to Gavin Williamson and Gillian Keegan, dated 8 April, the members of the City & Guilds Industry Board, which includes representatives of leading employers, stressed the business sector had worked hard, with FE partners and the government, to establish a thriving, high-quality apprenticeship system that helped plug vital skills gaps – but this was now at risk.


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Employer-led system

“After several years of hard work, we have finally, collectively, produced an employer-demand led system,” the letter says. “However, this fledgling system is now at risk because of the pressures placed upon the supply chain by the Covid-19 closures.”

The group says that while members understand that determining how to keep the country’s industries operational during the current situation has not been easy, 70 per cent of apprenticeships were delivered by independent training providers (ITPs), and these very organisations were currently at risk, “putting the government’s apprenticeship strategy in jeopardy”.

“Unlike schools and state-funded colleges, ITPs will not receive full funding to keep them afloat during this difficult time," the letter continues. "This may cause many to go out of business and leave employers, like us, without access to a vital skills supply chain.

“Furthermore, unless the funding agreed for ITPs and FE colleges also flows throughout the whole value chain through to the assessment and awarding organisations, we may see wider structural collapse.”

The country needed to “emerge from the wartime-like conditions that we find ourselves in, ready for what comes next,” says the letter, and this needed “foresight and action today”.

Without increased support from the DfE that goes beyond the Treasury’s current measures for private businesses, the whole sector’s capacity to train high-quality apprentices may be badly damaged just at the time it is needed more, it adds.

“If we fail apprenticeships now, we risk the whole skills system collapsing," says the letter. "Today, we as a collection of independent mixed-economy employers, who make up the Industry Skills Board (founded by The City & Guilds of London Institute), are calling on the government to do three things, in order to save the future of the further education sector, for the sake of individuals, businesses and our economy.”

Those three demands are for the government to support the entire FE and skills sector, to enable and support innovation, and to provide “clarity and equality”.

The letter concludes: “We commit to offer our own skills and experience as employers invested in the skills system to find practical ways of implementing these."

The letter in full

Employers need the Further Education sector now more than ever

Dear Rt. Hon. Gavin Williamson MP and Gillian Keegan MP

In recent years, the business sector has worked hard, with partners from the further education sector and government, to establish a thriving, high-quality apprenticeship system that helps to plug vital skills gaps and provides people from all generations with a valuable route into employment. After several years of hard work, we have finally, collectively, produced an employer-demand led system. However, this fledgling system is now at risk because of the pressures placed upon the supply chain by the Covid-19 closures.

We understand that determining how to keep the country’s industries operational during the current situation hasn’t been easy. And that difficulty is further exacerbated in sectors with a complex structure such as further education, which is made up of a tapestry of interconnected state funded colleges, independent training providers (ITPs), awarding organisations and end point assessment organisations (EPAOs).

What many may not realise is that 70 per cent (according to the Association of Employment and Learning Providers) of apprenticeships are delivered by ITPs, and it’s these very organisations that are currently at risk, putting the government’s apprenticeship strategy in jeopardy. Unlike schools and state-funded colleges, ITPs will not receive full funding to keep them afloat during this difficult time. This may cause many to go out of business and leave employers, like us, without access to a vital skills supply chain. Furthermore, unless the funding agreed for ITPs and FE colleges also flows throughout the whole value chain through to the assessment and awarding organisations, we may see wider structural collapse.

We need to emerge from the wartime-like conditions that we find ourselves in, ready for what comes next. This needs foresight and action today. The aftermath of lockdown and the current health emergency is going to result in a substantially different jobs landscape, with many left jobless and destitute. The skills system is part of the essential national infrastructure needed to equip people with the skills they need to enable the country to recover economically. Losing substantial parts of the skills system now will prolong the recovery. 

Without increased support from the DfE that goes beyond the Treasury’s current measures for private businesses, the whole sector’s capacity to train high-quality apprentices may be badly damaged – just at the time we need it most. If we fail apprenticeships now, we risk the whole skills system collapsing. Today, we as a collection of independent mixed-economy employers, who make up the Industry Skills Board (founded by The City & Guilds of London Institute), are calling on the government to do three things, in order to save the future of the further education sector, for the sake of individuals, businesses and our economy. We commit to offer our own skills and experience as employers invested in the skills system to find practical ways of implementing these:

1) Support the whole sector: The FE, skills and apprenticeships ecosystem is incredibly complex, and needs all its parts working successfully in order to function effectively. We urge the government to show its support for the entire sector, in the form of some additional level of underwriting of typical apprenticeships/ITP funding rates between now and August. This would essentially provide a more stable cashflow situation for the next few months and be calculated based on known ESFA information, creating parity with schools, colleges and Adult Learning Providers. Of course, there would be caveats to this; any centre that accepted this offer should expect clawback if the business engagement fell short of the subsidy.

2) Enable and support innovation: Necessity is the mother of invention, and this crisis will inevitably give rise to change and innovation both in the FE sector and the wider working world. We need targeted funding and support to accelerate the adoption of innovative forms of outreach and engagement with learning. It might be in the form of matching funding investment or simply covering infrastructure upgrades in internet connectivity, mobile kits, or learning content acquisition/production. This should not be a short-term "quick fix" during Covid-19; all investment must be proven to lead to a sustained change in business behaviour and practice.

3) Clarity and equality: We need much more clarity around the support measures for the sector– and the employers that depend on it. We would ask for a targeted "Friday" letter, similar to what has already been issued for schools and colleges, that calls out the support now being offered for the apprenticeship sector to help them to stabilise now and recover quickly when we emerge the other side so that we don’t see the mass exodus of skilled staff from the sector in the coming months.

Based on the above, we ask for these measures to be put in place now as a safety net which allows people and employers to retrain and reskill in order to help support the nation’s recovery efforts. 

We need more support, equality and clarity for the sector. We need that support now, before it becomes too late.

Yours sincerely

The members of the City & Guilds Industry Skills Board 2

Kirstie Donnelly MBE – City & Guilds Group, Andy Smyth - Ah Ha! Consulting LimitedWarren Page – Xtrac, Karima Khandker – Heathrow, Lizzie Crowley – CIPD, Joanne Bradford – Marstons, Michael White – RBS, Mark Lavington – PGL, Anthony Impey – Optimity / Federation of Small Businesses, Mark Maudsley – GTL England, Dominic Gill PPG

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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