The government should start again with a green paper for an FE strategy that stands the test of time, writes Stephen Evans

The much-anticipated FE white paper may now be delayed into 2021, we’ve found out. But is there a case for waiting even longer? 

Last week, ESFA chief executive Eileen Milner said the white paper would “certainly” be published this financial year, later than its expected launch this autumn.  

The purpose of the white paper is, I believe, to set out a clear, long-term vision of how we improve learning and skills for young people and adults that we can all get behind and play our part in.  

To do that properly, it needs to be co-designed with employers, providers and other stakeholders and be backed by investment.  

But the problem is that a white paper published after a one-year spending review while we are still in a pandemic and without open consultation doesn’t really allow that.  

So the risk is we get a document that gives a framework for what the government is already doing, but without the money to match the ambition.

That would mean it doesn’t stand the test of time as the dust (hopefully) settles following Covid-19.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which provides an entitlement to a first level 3 qualification, is a case in point. 

It’s a step forward and we need far more people progressing to level 3. But it is limited in scope, with Whitehall officials deciding which courses people can do – including entire sectors being left out – and little support for maintenance costs.  

It also does nothing to tackle the sharp decline in learner take-up at basic skills and level 2.  

Not only is that a bad thing in its own right, it shows there are a limited number of people ready to progress to level 3.  

Meanwhile, the tight budget for the guarantee (£138 million per year when around 20 million adults don’t have a level 3) reveals the government is expecting limited take-up. 

Better surely to have a clear strategy for increasing learning at all levels, allow local areas to tailor support to their industrial strategies, and let people and employers make their own decisions?  

In other words, to move beyond fragmented initiatives and the assumption that “Whitehall knows best”.  

The government could do this by publishing a green paper setting out its ideas, then genuinely work with local government, employers, colleges and providers over the next year. 

This would then be followed by a lifelong learning white paper, alongside a longer-term spending settlement next year. 

What could this green paper say?

  1. Ambition and investment

Analysis from the Learning and Work Institute shows that England will fall even further behind the skills profile of other countries by 2030 on current trends. We should benchmark ourselves against the best in the world. We can’t deliver that on the cheap: before the pandemic, we argued for an extra £1.9 billion per year for the next decade. 

  1. Learning pathways

We need a much clearer plan for how people can progress in their learning, switch between provision, and how learning routes interact with each other. For example, how does someone who doesn’t have a level 2 get into learning, progress on to a T level and then on to a higher apprenticeship? This needs thinking about in terms of a system ̶ not individual policies. 

  1. Local leadership 

We’ve argued for a more ambitious approach to devolution, agreeing a single funding pot tied to local labour market agreements focused on outcomes. There would then be more scope to integrate and align services for people and employers.

  1. Upskilling and retraining 

We need much wider and broader entitlements for adults to upskill and retrain in more flexible ways, bolstered by a learning account giving people the chance to invest in learning beyond these entitlements.  

A clear plan is important but it will be more effective if developed collaboratively with the sector. 

Better to get it done right ̶ even if that takes a bit longer.