Coronavirus: The skills system needs more support

The Department for Education and the Treasury will need to provide additional measures to help FE, writes Tom Bewick

The FE sector needs further protection as it deals with the Coronavirus pandemic, writes Tom Bewick

Coronavirus is wreaking havoc in our society as well as across the post-16 skills system. Colleges and providers have been told to close their doors, except for the students of key workers and the vulnerable. And of course, we do not know when these premises will fully open again, as our dedicated healthcare professionals battle with the pandemic.

Understandably, there is a lot of concern and frustration across the skills landscape at the moment. But now is not the time to be angry. The whole sector must come together to deal with these unprecedented times in a real spirit of mutual cooperation. One of the best advocates of this approach has come from my colleague, David Hughes, who has played a major civic role and provided inspired leadership to the college sector during these challenging times. Writing in Tes earlier this week, he talked about how the whole community needs to pull together, regardless of what part of the sector they come from.


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Emergency measures

The government has already moved quickly to underwrite 80 per cent of the wages of employees in all sectors of the economy who would otherwise face being made redundant. The job retention scheme can give a huge amount of support to the post-16 sector where the main overhead is essentially paying people.

The government’s other emergency measures, including the abolition of business rates, can help sustain the productive capacity of the entire skills system – from A levels to apprenticeships – for a temporary period of time. Because make no mistake, the physical capacity of post-16 providers will be sorely needed as we move from the crisis part of this national emergency to the recovery phase.

The letter last week from the skills minister, Gillian Keegan, made a promising start in recognising that our colleges are absolutely central to the lifeblood of every community. No college should be allowed to fail because of the coronavirus. But equally, we need to recognise that skills training in this country operates as a whole "eco-system", not just as a set of local institutions. Government funds the education system on the principle of the money following the learner. In other words, without enrolments of students or apprentices, then no bills fall due.

This is particularly critical for the awarding and assessment industry, who are, by definition, at the end of the supply chain. Certificates and end-point assessments in the apprenticeship sector are the final parts of the skills jigsaw that ensures learners are occupationally competent for their careers. The problem with a bailout of colleges and independent training providers is that there appears to be no guarantees that these funds will be passed on to the rest of the eco-system.

That includes a lot of technology providers who underpin the sector with innovative e-learning platforms that help ensure providers are, for example, Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) compliant.

Another obvious flaw in the current funding model during a crisis like Covid-19 is what happens if your enrolments fall off a cliff? Like the airline industry, with no passengers, it means large parts of the skills eco-system loses revenue on an almost hourly basis making some of them economically unviable within days.

It is why the Department for Education and the Treasury will need to provide some complementary measures, other than the generic ones it has already announced for business, to keep the skills-system going over the next few months. The sorts of policies the Department for Education could put in place over the coming days lend themselves easily to the range of powers enshrined in the emergency legislation going through parliament this week.

Guaranteed funding

Firstly, ministers should move swiftly to guarantee the funding of all current and active providers on the ESFA registers (colleges, independent providers and end-point assessment organisations). This should include Awarding Organisations with qualifications regulated by Ofqual. The key objective for the eco-system is to ensure a credit line is extended by ESFA over next 12 weeks and paid out on the basis of all the apprenticeship activity that would have taken place if the national emergency had not been declared. Some of this money can be recouped at a later date when the sector is firmly back on its feet.

To avoid a situation where share capital owned providers use the funding guarantees to pay out dividends to shareholders, these pay-outs would be banned for the period of the emergency scheme being put in place. Similarly, these funding guarantees should be made on the basis they will be passed down the supply chain. State aid monies should not only be used to shore up firms on the official provider registers.  This action alone, although a massive undertaking by peacetime standards, would ensure the sector stays focused on dealing with Covid-19 instead of fighting among itself for survival.

Secondly, the approximate 700,00 apprentices currently enrolled on programmes need to be fully protected. The emergency legislation could give the government the power to make it illegal to fire apprentices during the crisis period. As employees, apprentices can now benefit from the job retention scheme and be made furlough. The danger, however, is that apprentice employees are seen as an easy target for layoffs instead of being actively supported as key workers.

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education was just starting to turn the corner on plummeting starts which have been a feature of England’s apprenticeship model since 2017. It would be calamitous if apprenticeships were allowed to fall off a cliff when these skills will be required as the economy gets back to some semblance of normality after the crisis.

The recently issued guidance to the sector on how to carry on conducting apprenticeship assessments is heroic with intent but perhaps may prove impractical to deliver. The government says that nearly 20 external quality assurance providers (EQAPs) can agree to special dispensations on the assessment plans, like agreeing to remote or online validation. One challenge with this approach is it will simply hardwire unfairness and inconsistency of apprentice quality assurance in a system where it is already endemic. It feels like the different EQAPs have used the crisis to make themselves more relevant, when in fact, they remain a significant part of the problem. The sooner we move to a single external quality assurance model the better.

Coronavirus is the biggest pandemic to have hit the globe since the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people. We need to learn from our history, but equally now is the time to be even more imaginative and bold. Because thousands of learners and millions of livelihoods now depend upon it.

Tom Bewick is chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies.

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