The Technical and Further Education Bill is a good start, but it needs to address structural problems that will hold us back in world trade, says Shane Chowen.

In the wake of the vote to leave the EU, the economic aftershocks are beginning to be felt. Economists still forecast a rise in unemployment – albeit not to the scale predicted immediately after the referendum – and the consequences of a weak currency are starting to have an impact, with retailers and energy companies set to increase prices.

But looking at other changes to our economy, it seems the government has not dropped the ball. Self-employment is now at its highest rate ever, helped by the rise in what has been dubbed the ‘gig economy’, where companies enlist self-employed individuals for work that is often low-paid and insecure, but very flexible.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, and a former adviser to Tony Blair, has been asked by Theresa May to look into what these emerging employment models mean for employee rights and employer responsibilities. One of the six key themes of Taylor’s inquiry is to look at progression and training, and to recommend ways to ‘facilitate and encourage professional development’. After all, self-employed people can’t ‘apprentice’ themselves.

Self-employed people can’t ‘apprentice’ themselves

The sector must engage in this important review.

The Technical and Further Education Bill, introduced by the government on October 27, is the ideal opportunity for the government to go further in granting the regulatory freedoms necessary to respond to our changing economy. The bill provides the legislative backing for the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to provide technical training pathways within defined occupational groups.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s what the Sainsbury Review recommended. However, the bill doesn’t say there should be 15 routes, as Sainsbury suggested. Instead, it charges the secretary of state with responsibility to determine occupational groups, and then it will be up to the new Institute to decide which occupations fall into each group. Interestingly, there is a clause in the bill that would ensure any occupation that doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-determined group, would still have to be lumped in anyway. So I for one would not put money on 15 being the magic number.

The new Institute will have a powerful role in technical education as well as apprenticeships. It will be empowered by law to set standards and approve, own copyright for, and license technical qualifications related to those occupations.

People with learning difficulties and disabilities, and people from BME backgrounds have been famously underrepresented in apprenticeships

I would love to see a more explicit requirement to work with learners. The bill requires it to share information with Ofqual, Ofsted and the new Office for Students, but these are hardly organisations with outstanding track records of learner engagement. Lessons should be learned from the trailblazer process and learners should be systematically embedded in the development and approval of standards and assessment plans for apprenticeships and technical education.

The Department for Education’s own evidence suggests that their reforms will benefit groups of learners. For example, its impact assessment says those with learning difficulties and disabilities will benefit from the transition year proposed in the Post-16 Skills Plan. Learners from black and ethnic minority (BME) groups will benefit from the new college insolvency regime introduced by the bill, because a higher proportion of BME learners go to college relative to the general population.

Yet the bill does not even touch on glaring access issues currently plaguing the apprenticeships system. People with learning difficulties and disabilities, and people from BME backgrounds have been famously underrepresented in apprenticeships for a number of years. There should be amendments to the bill that enshrine the developed recommendations of the Maynard Review on apprenticeship accessibility.

At the very least, the bill should legislate for the new Institute to have a defined role in widening access to apprenticeships and technical education, similar to the Office for Students’ role in widening participation in universities.

The bill is a good start, but could do much more to set the sector up for a modern economy and address serious structural problems that will hold us back as we trade with the rest of the world.

 

Shane Chowen is head of policy and public affairs at the Learning and Work Institute, and a governor at Westminster Kingsway College.