What will the spending review mean for FE?

Ideally, reforms to the apprenticeship levy, support for adult learning and - of course - funding, says Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

What will the government spending review mean for FE?

It’s traditional to write to a new minister, welcoming them into the role and setting out what you hope their priorities will be. I’ve written a few of these letters now, a reflection on both the passage of time and turnover of ministers.

The content of these letters will not be a huge surprise to those of you who have read much of the Learning and Work Institute’s research. We argue that improvements in skills have stalled and that the economic and social benefits of doing better demand increased investment in all forms of learning. That’s why we’ve called for a lifelong learning strategy and welcomed the call for a 10-year plan for education and learning from Commons Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon.

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I still think all of this holds true and will continue to argue for it. I also think there’s a growing realisation of the benefits of learning across political divides and others such as business groups. I hope for a generous and long-term funding settlement for further education and learning – we still have work to do to make that happen.

However, it’s also important to recognise political reality. Brexit remains the central focus of politics as the clock ticks toward the latest deadline of 31 October, described by our new prime minister as do or die. There’s also growing speculation about a possible general election later this year or in early 2020, either because the prime minister’s Brexit plans are blocked or to try and use a post-Brexit bounce to boost the government’s wafer-thin majority.

All of this explains why the government has now confirmed there will be a one-year, rather than three-year, spending review in the Autumn. Here’s my starter for 10 of things the chancellor could do that in that review that could make a difference:

Invest in young people 

The drop in the funding rates for 16- to 18-year-olds in further education compared to schools and universities is unjustifiable. Increasing this rate to £4,760 would cost around £1 billion per year. It would be a visible symbol of investing in young people, the future of our country, and increasing the chances of T levels working.

Invest in further education infrastructure 

The government has just announced £1.8 billion to repair and update hospitals. Why not do the same for our education infrastructure, matching the Augar Review’s call for £1 billion over three years for further education? To get the technical and vocational skills we need, we must have the infrastructure to deliver them. 

Support adults to learn and improve their skills

Longer working lives and ongoing technological change plus the wider benefits of learning together mean an increasing need for adults to keep learning throughout life. Yet cuts to the adult education budget mean participation in learning by adults is at its lowest rate since Learning and Work Institute began measuring it 20 years ago. A good place to start would be making a first level 2 and 3 free for all adults, something the Augar Review recommended and said would cost £500 million per year.

Reform the apprenticeship levy 

The apprenticeship levy is a good idea, but clearly it needs some change – we’re on course to bust the budget and miss the target, while many employers don’t feel they can get what they want. The previous chancellor said last year that he would review the operation of the levy. It’s time now for extra investment to support apprenticeships for SMEs and for young people (who risk being squeezed out by the current system), alongside agreeing changes to make the levy work better for employers.

None of this is to give up on the calls for a long-term plan and investment in further education and learning – these are desperately needed. Nor is my list above intended to be ‘it’ – there’s far more that we need to do to build a joined-up system based on collaboration to give just one example.

However, these asks represent concrete steps that could feature in a one-year spending review and which would make a difference. They would follow through on a commitment to invest in people and skills as we build a post-Brexit economy. They could also help support the economy if it takes a downturn either naturally or because of the potential impact of any no-deal Brexit.

Think of it as a down payment on a long-term plan. Good for now, and good for the future.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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