It certainly was an exciting start to the week. The media were trailing that the Queen’s Speech – yes, you read it right – the actual Queen’s Speech, with the Queen and the crown and the knocking on the door – would include the government’s plans for the further education and skills sector.
As it was, the Queen’s comments on FE were reasonably short. Her government would introduce legislation to support "a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to enable flexible access to high-quality education and training throughout people's lives", Her Majesty said, hinting at the much-touted post-16 education and skills bill, due to have its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday.
There was also some talk about levelling up and the importance of creating opportunities for people everywhere – but detail was, predictably, thin on the ground. It was, however, a signal – and a welcome one, too. FE and skills is having a moment in the spotlight, and now even the monarch knows about it.
Queen’s Speech: What it said about FE and training
Boris Johnson: FE and adult education laws 'are rocket fuel'
A little bit more information on what the bill will entail could be found in the briefing notes published alongside the speech. In addition to the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, it will also take forward more of the proposals from the FE White Paper – including additional powers for the education secretary to intervene in “failing” colleges; the Skills Accelerator, which will “put employers at the heart of the post-16 skills system”; and a new Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which, the government says, will give individuals access to the equivalent of up to four years’ worth of student loans for level 4-6 qualifications they can use flexibly across their lifetime.
Boris Johnson's skills plans need proper funding
In his usual modest style, prime minister Boris Johnson said the new legislation would be “rocket fuel” in the levelling-up agenda.
Here is the thing, though. Rocket fuel is not free. Today’s report by the Education Policy Institute on education recovery sets out a number of measures necessary to support 16- to 19-year-olds and alleviate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The government should provide funding to make it possible for providers to extend 16-19 courses for an additional year where needed, extend the 16-19 Tuition Fund and introduce a student premium for the age group. There should also be greater subsidies for younger apprentices. This, the EPI estimates, would come at a cost of just over £2 billion over three years, just to make up for the impact of Covid on 16- to 19-year-olds. It does not include any support that older learners might need, or any measures to help apprentices already in training.
For the sector to be able to do what the government is expecting – and what the country will need post-pandemic – the more deeply engrained financial challenges facing FE need to be addressed. The sector needs a funding settlement that means staff can be paid in a way that recognises the work they do – or at least be close to being on a par with their peers in schools. Colleges also need the funds to support students adequately: whether it is with equipment, mental health support or general guidance and wraparound services.
There is no doubt that there will be much competition for the Treasury’s coffers – the pandemic has hit many parts of the economy hard and areas like the NHS certainly deserve a boost. But there will be none of Mr Johnson’s “rocket fuel” for the economy if it is not paid for – and, at that point, we really will see thousands left behind by the recovery.