Answers to key questions will determine the future success of FE and Skills

David Hughes raises six key questions that he feels need to be answered to help the Government realise its goal of transforming learning and skills by 2020, as set out in the Skills Funding Letter.

The Skills Funding Letter to the Skills Funding Agency sets out a radical and potentially positive path over the next five years for learning and skills.

With the new apprenticeship levy, an extension of loans and cash protection for the newly-named adult education budget, the Government has set out rising investment in learning and skills over the term of this Parliament.

Nobody was predicting that and it is a welcome respite after five years of cuts which have reduced learning opportunities and brought many colleges close to financial melt-down.

In a very clever settlement, the Skills Minister showed that he has listened and set out a stable policy environment as well as the unexpected rising investment.

But there is always a but, and for me there are six questions which need answering before we can truly view this as a positive outcome for learners, communities and employers.

It’s easy to blame the remote Whitehall mandarins for ‘bad’ decisions, not so easy when the decisions are being taken in the town hall.

Firstly, will apprenticeships be piled high & sold cheap? The 3m target and the levy on pay-rolls over £3m could easily lead to more of the apprenticeships which don’t launch people on a productive career.

The risk of this is compounded by the fear that employers will cease to invest in other much-needed workplace training.

Secondly, will adults invest in themselves? The introduction of loans for those over 24 and for part-time higher education has seen a collapse in participation. What will change now to ensure that more adults do make the investment through the loans?

Thirdly, is this the time for community learning to fly or die? Folding the community learning budget into a new locally-commissioned adult education budget is clever, but will every area understand, value and retain the learning which, for instance, encourages adults to take those first steps, family learning, supports people to stay active in later life?

Next up, will Town Hall leadership be better than Whitehall? It’s easy to blame the remote Whitehall mandarins for ‘bad’ decisions, not so easy when the decisions are being taken in the town hall.

In any devolved system, it is inevitable that some areas will be ‘better’ than others. Where is the balancing accountability for local decisions and who centrally will police it?

Also, are colleges up for the changes needed? The rising investment set out in the letter is very different in nature — it will come very clearly from three sources — the Government via local commissioning, employers via the apprenticeship levy and learners via loans.

Colleges will need to think carefully about how to market, package and deliver the mix, the quality, the flexibility needed to appeal to these new markets.

Some will need to invest in change at a time when reserves have been severely depleted in many places.

Finally, is this the end of the independent training provider market? The Minister set out his view at the Association of Colleges conference by challenging colleges to take more of the growing apprenticeship market and the letter suggests that big national contracts will cease as funding is routed via local commissioning and via employers.

It sets an enormous challenge to independent providers at the same time as the Department for Work and Pensions has set out that the £500m Work Programme will cease, to be replaced by in-house services and a much smaller Work and Health Programme of £130m.

I am optimistic about the next few years because the sector has a policy and funding settlement it can work with and some time to make it work.

That’s great news for us all, and in 2020 I hope to be able to look back at the positive changes which resulted in better access, better quality and better outcomes for learners and employers.


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