Despite today’s announcement that it is just for one year only, the outcome of the government’s comprehensive spending review (CSR), expected before the end of November, is arguably one of the most important in years.
In their recent speeches, both the prime minister and the chancellor have acknowledged the need for a massive investment in retraining existing workers as a consequence of the pandemic. More support for young people starting their careers has also been recognised as vital and, in my view, the mooted extra funding for apprenticeships should be heavily directed towards SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) employers spread across the country who have traditionally been willing to offer young people opportunities on the programme.
After a decade of cuts in adult education before the lockdown and now the increases in unemployment, we need the government to triple the adult education budget (AEB) of £1.5 billion a year, which is currently split evenly between the combined authorities and the rest of England.
Like others, I believe in trusting the customer, in this case the learner, in choosing how to learn and they can do this best by accessing the AEB via an individual skills account.
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Skills accounts can drive innovation in terms of both product and the means of delivering learning. The pandemic’s lockdown has already sharply increased the appetite for blended learning and online learning, and at The Skills Network we are seeing massive growth in online demand from employers, trade unions and learners such as Unite. Make no mistake, this seismic shift is not a temporary phenomenon; it’s here to stay and skills accounts will simply make learner access easier.
Colleges shouldn't fear reform
Colleges shouldn’t fear such reform. Amid talk of the forthcoming FE reform White Paper advocating closer collaboration, independent training providers can help colleges to directly deliver their own branded offerings by, for example, contracting out experienced online tutors and other infrastructure services. Indeed, throughout its history, deep genuine partnership with colleges, training providers and employers has been at the heart of all of The Skills Network's work.
However, while there are strong grounds for optimism about the future, we should always be wary of the policymakers being tempted to influence outcomes that don’t necessarily meet demand.
Take, for example, Boris Johnson’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee announced at the end of last month. Of course, we should very much welcome that, from April, adults over the age of 23 will no longer need to take out a loan to gain their first level 3 qualification, but officials are apparently working on a prescribed list of qualifications that will be available under this free entitlement.
If I were a bookie, I wouldn’t even bother to offer odds about digital and green-related qualifications being on that list, and I’m not about to complain. But how about ones for teaching assistants, nurses, family support workers and home care social workers? Are they dead certs for inclusion?
Do you think officials are aware that the ability to support autistic children and adults was listed in over 132,000 job postings between March and September? This is what Emsi has found in a skills and employment report that our organisation commissioned recently. We will be sharing the findings more widely and while the report points to demand for skills that won’t necessarily excite those who draft government press releases ("world-beating truck drivers", anyone?), it offers an invaluable insight into what qualifications learners need if they want to maximise their chances of secure employment in this period of continuing uncertainty.
A short, sharp injection of skills
The other key point that sadly fails to excite ministers in their vision of a post-Brexit Britain is that employers are often looking for a short, sharp injection of skills into people that they are looking to recruit or in their existing workforces.
Through the adult education budget, the Education and Skills Funding Agency supports delivery of flexible tailored provision for adults, including qualifications and components of these and/or non-regulated learning, up to level 2. The so-called local flexibility and more investment in this and units of level 3 qualifications would bring substantial dividends especially during the Covid and post-Covid era.
The comprehensive spending review outcome will naturally look for what might appear to be headline-catching proposals and while we do need to determine and prepare for future need, the CSR should instigate a reform process which trusts individual learners and learning suppliers to provide the skills which will benefit all regions and sectors of the economy now.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of The Skills Network