Undoubtedly, this has been a year filled with unexpected challenges and changes. The latest shock came in the form of government scrapping its plans for a three-year comprehensive spending review (CSR), reducing this to a one-year spending round instead. Not only has Covid-19 claimed lives, kept us away from our family and friends, destabilised our economy and claimed jobs, but it is also now limiting our ability to plan for the future.
Although an unprecedented change, the reasons behind a one-year spending review are understandable. Back in March when the Treasury originally announced its intention for the three-year CSR, we had not yet experienced the full effect of Covid-19.
Fast-forward seven months and we now find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic with the UK facing growing job losses, rising infection rates and the cusp of a second wave. The one-year spending round will free up government resources to focus on immediate challenges. But for the further education sector that has been left to wither for so long, this comes as a bitter pill to swallow.
For further education, the anticipation of a three-year CSR offered new hope for vital investment in the sector. Having faced a tough decade of austerity, the sector welcomed government’s renewed ambition for FE, looking forward to the proposal of the FE White Paper and long-term spending plans for the sector. We must not let this ambition fade and it is clearer now, more than ever before, that we need our FE sector to be at the forefront of social and economic recovery.
Covid-19 has left us with an exceptionally squeezed fiscal climate and we acknowledge that this will involve significant challenges for government, with difficult decisions and priorities made on how best to spend public funds. For these reasons, we have highlighted the five key areas that we believe the government should prioritise in the upcoming spending round.
Priority 1: Focusing on support for young people
The impact of Covid-19 will be one of the defining features for a whole generation of young people. Our report, The Impact of Covid-19 on Education, highlights that the economic impact has been, and will continue to be, felt disproportionately by those under 24, and the impact on mental health has been particularly challenging for many young people. We have also seen a widening of the digital divide with disadvantaged young people left further behind than their peers due to limited digital reach.
Over the next year, the Treasury and the Department for Education should immediately prioritise funding to support a full return to education, particularly supporting young people and disadvantaged learners at risk of being left behind, and ensuring digital access for those who need it most.
Priority 2: Apprenticeships
For too long, we have seen the government’s fixation on targets leading us to a culture of quantity ahead of quality. Covid-19 has also had a particular impact on apprentices, with more than a third furloughed and more than one in 10 made redundant.
We need to promote apprenticeships as an equal route to success. This should include refocusing the levy on 16- to 24-year-olds and offering a significant wage subsidy for small businesses so that regions can more appropriately tailor the programme to meet local needs
Priority 3: Supporting our education workforce
The past few months have been particularly challenging for our education workforce, with significant concerns over mental health, workload and the pressures of moving to online, hybrid working.
The CSR should signal clear support for our workforce by increasing pay, improving issues of recruitment and retention and strengthening professional development. This should go some way to ensuring that our college workforce feel better valued and there is parity of esteem. So that lecturers remain at the forefront of their field, government should also fund a sustainable programme of industry exchange – at Edge we have piloted a series of "teacher externships", which provide a successful model of how this can be done well.
Priority 4: Careers support
The lack of a coherent careers advice strategy for young people is now posing a long-standing challenge for education institutions. It is bad for people and bad for business. At Edge, we have been advocating the importance of good quality careers guidance so that young people can understand the breadth of career opportunities.
For students entering the workforce, the crisis has had a significant impact on career paths, so these students need particular support. We also need to see renewed funding for careers programmes and careers hubs, and better integration of careers into the curriculum, through real examples that help to bring learning to life.
Priority 5: Renewed support for technical skills
We welcomed the prime minister’s recent announcement on the lifetime skills guarantee. Supporting adults towards their first level 3 qualification will enable those furthest from the labour market to upskill and gain meaningful employment. We also welcome the refocus towards lifetime learning and flexible funding for FE and HE so that adults and young people can reskill into sustainable jobs fit for the future.
This year we need to see government matching this ambition with pace and urgency. The £2.5 billion National Skills Fund offers an opportunity to support individuals to retrain and ensure that adults are supported into meaningful employment. We also need to see continued support for T levels and renewed reform of higher technical education to make this a more popular and prestigious choice.
Put people at the heart of decision making
This year, Covid-19 has been unequally felt across the UK, and having a one-year rather than a three-year spending round will make it hard for anyone to plan with any confidence. We, therefore, urge government to put people back at the heart of decision making so that no one and no place gets left behind.
Despite the difficulty of the current fiscal situation, we can also use this year as an opportunity to strengthen policies that don’t need substantial sums of money. By taking the time to collaborate across institutions, working closer with employers and learning from best practice across our four nations we can use this opportunity to support our FE sector out of this crisis and towards a bolder and brighter future.
Alice Barnard is chief executive of the Edge Foundation