What would we all be talking about if David Cameron hadn’t pledged three million apprenticeships starts in the Conservative Party’s manifesto two years ago? Who knows? But for better or for worse, the FE and skills sector has been pointed at as an area of public policy where providers are constantly juggling policy change, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. We are a sector that simultaneously wants to be left alone to get with it, yet craves the attention our counterparts in schools and universities enjoy. We want change, but we don’t enjoy change.
It is healthy though, for policy to adapt and update as the needs of learners and the demands of the workplace change and evolve over time.
Take basic skills policy, for example. Adults in this country have a right to access English and maths qualifications up to and including level 2 for free, because we know people must have these skills to function and succeed in life and work and be included in society. For the last decade, the Learning and Work Institute has made the case that there is a third basic skill – digital – and now, as government services become ‘digital by default’, as businesses report debilitating digital skills gaps among the UK’s workforce and as we learn more about the detrimental impacts of digital exclusion in communities across the country, now is the time to give adults the right to free basic digital skills training.
The case has been made. And if you saw the government’s UK Digital Strategy, published in March this year, you will see that a lack of basic digital skills is one of four main reasons for digital exclusion and it’s harmful side-effects. There is a 22 percentage point gap between areas of the country with the highest and lowest basic digitally-skilled populations and a 22 percentage point gap between basic digital skills capabilities of people in rich and poor socioeconomic groups. If you’re poor or live in Wales, you are significantly less likely to have the basic digital needed to get by than if you’re rich or live in London or Scotland.
That’s why the Learning and Work Institute was, as you can imagine, delighted when an announcement was made during the Conservative Party conference last year to prioritise basic digital skills by mirroring the approach taken for adult literacy and numeracy through publicly-funded adult education.
In order to do that, a minister, in this case former skills minister Matthew Hancock MP, now minister for digital at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has tried to change the law so digital appears alongside literacy and numeracy as training people have a right to access for free.
That change, in the form of a government amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, is still working its way through Parliament. If the Bill isn’t signed off by both Houses of Parliament (and officially the Queen) by the time Parliament dissolves before the election, the Digital Economy Bill dies, and the basic digital skills entitlement with it.
This afternoon, the House of Commons has to consider nearly 300 amendments made to the Bill by the House of Lords. The Lords then have to either agree or not with the Bill as amended by the Commons until both Houses agree the final wording, in a process known as ‘ping pong’ before dissolution on 3 May.
The Bill has cross-party support, but there are many people who would like to see it fall, for example over new powers within the Bill being extended to government over control of people’s data online. The Digital Skills Entitlement is not one of those controversial provisions.
No one is arguing that the entitlement itself will solve digital exclusion and the digital skills gap. The government’s announcement for free basic digital skills training came with no extra funding and is expected to be funded from an already severely stretched Adult Education Budget. The Learning and Work Institute has made the case, and will up our game during the general election, for an extra £200 million a year to fund extra basic skills training to enable all adults to have access to the basic skills training they need by 2030.
We call for the new digital skills entitlement to be passed, for extra resources for this training, and then for the sector to work together to deliver the digital skills that people and employers need.