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'Non-academic courses should not automatically be condemned as Mickey Mouse qualifications'

David Grailey, chief executive of awarding body NCFE, writes:

Around 5,000 adult vocational courses are set to be cut in order to "simplify and streamline" the adult skills system in England. Skills and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock last month took to Twitter to announce that the government will be binning ‘low-value’ courses such as self-tanning, balloon artistry and instructing pole fitness in order to focus on qualifications that employers value. Nearly £200 million of the department's adult skills budget will now be redirected towards what the government considers to be the ‘most relevant’ qualifications.

Of course, funding should be focused around qualifications of quality and rigour that lead people into successful employment – that’s not up for debate. It’s to be applauded that the government is bringing clarity to a cluttered system. What’s more, it’s true that many of the qualifications being discussed are in niche areas and may seem trivial or irrelevant to the skills needs of the country.

However, it seems unfair to showcase examples such as ‘aerial balloon displays’ and ‘self- tanning’ which in some cases weren’t funded in the first place and, in any case, only account for a tiny portion of the qualifications that are being resigned to the scrapheap. By highlighting these courses in relation to tax payers’ money, it’s unsurprising that it stirs up emotive responses from the public.

I would argue that many of the qualifications in danger of losing funding actually do have real value to learners and what’s more, they’re held in high regard by employers. Just because the courses are short in terms of guided learning hours or have low credit value, this does not equate to them being worthless. Sometimes, the fact that the qualification is short is actually of benefit to the learner as it can be delivered flexibly and they can fit it around other learning programmes, their work, their family life and other commitments.

Similarly, even if a course isn’t traditionally academic, it should not automatically be condemned as a ‘Micky Mouse’ course. It’s important to remember that society is made up of a rich tapestry of individuals, all with their own strengths and talents which deserve to be recognised. For every scientist looking for a cure for cancer, there is a care worker who is looking after a cancer sufferer. They might not have a degree under their belt but their gift in caring for vulnerable people should not be underestimated. On the contrary, this gift should be nurtured.

There were qualifications at risk of losing funding which fall into the health and social care sector. These qualifications undoubtedly fill a skills gap and are integral to those who work in this incredibly worthwhile profession, particularly useful to those in care homes and hospices. I don’t believe they can be bracketed with a qualification in self-tanning.

Other key examples include qualifications which up-skill those who work in call centres. The call centre industry is one of the UK’s most rapidly expanding sectors, now employing over one million people. With this in mind, surely it’s necessary to equip the people who work in this industry with the training they need to do an effective job?

As an awarding organisation, NCFE is looking closely at which of our qualifications are at risk and what effect this will have on specific cohorts of learners. We’re proactively responding to the changes, looking at each affected qualification individually and working hard to secure funding for qualifications if we think that this is the right thing to do. We’ve put in an appeal with the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) for a number of qualifications to be considered as exceptions and have recently received news that many of these appeals have been successful.

The SFA has now overturned their decision on qualifications such as ‘Working in Mental Health’, ‘End of Life Care’ and ‘Contact Centre Operations’ and we’re delighted with this outcome. However, there is still a long way to go and it is likely we will be appealing more qualifications in the coming weeks and months.

Overall, I welcome a re-evaluation on which qualifications should receive public funding. After all, it’s vital that qualifications which receive funding are fit for purpose and meet the needs of the labour market. However, our priority is to ensure that learners continue to have access to the qualifications which develop their skills and promote achievement, success and progression into work. Without funding, providers are restricted, their hands are tied and they will be unable to offer a breadth of qualifications to help learners achieve their goals.

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