Any focus on learning outcomes needs a long-term learning strategy

17 Sep 2021, 9:32

Nadhim Zahawi needs to think carefully about what outcomes we want to measure and what the long-term plan is, writes Stephen Evans  

Nadhim Zahawi has arrived in post at a crucial time. We are weeks away from a spending review, various reforms are already in train to implement the skills white paper, and it is more crucial than ever that we ensure everyone has access to high-quality learning options. 

It is the funding and accountability consultation I want to focus on. The government proposes a greater focus on the outcomes of learning. This will include accountability agreements setting out how colleges will meet local and national skills needs, and a new skills measure looking at the employment outcomes of learners. 

For me, some of this is in the right direction. But it is not ambitious enough. 

A new report from the Learning and Work Institute and the Association of Colleges looks at what we can learn from other countries. First, what do we mean by outcomes?

I would say we should focus on more than just employment outcomes of learning. What about the social impacts, such as improved health and wellbeing, social contacts and increased earnings? 

We need to look beyond the headlines, which can be distorted by local economic circumstance or demographics. 

Let’s also look at value-added measures, including economic and social outcomes for groups such as disabled people who too often miss out. 

Second, what are we using data on outcomes for? 

It should be about more than central government holding colleges to account. 

Why don’t we publish outcomes data for colleges like the US does, so it can help inform people’s and employers’ decisions about what and where to learn? 

So we are arguing for a new employment and skills data lab, building on the Ministry of Justice Data Lab, which makes it easier for providers to check if their projects are reducing reoffending. 

We have the data, because individual learning records are linked to HMRC data. 

Why don’t we publish outcomes data for colleges like the US does? 

We also have an employment data lab in development in the DWP. We should expand and accelerate this. 

In other words, data should be open and contextualised – it can be a powerful tool for people, employers and providers. 

Third, what is the scope? The government seems to be looking fairly narrowly at the adult education budget and National Skills Fund. I would argue for a much broader look across the whole learning, skills and employment systems. 

The government should also be more ambitious in devolving funding to local government. This would be underpinned by outcome agreements on how this will deliver improved results, building on the Canadian model of Labour Market Development Agreements. 

The current partial devolution of a single funding stream (AEB) leaves everyone with one arm tied behind their backs. 

Independent evaluation shows the Canadian approach led to more people finding work and improving their skills. 

That is one for the new secretary of state to pick up with Michael Gove in his new role focused on “levelling up” at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. 

None of this will be possible without increased, longer-term, simplified funding. The two must go hand in hand. 

The good news is that the consultation recognises that. The bad news is that ministers will always be tempted to announce a new fund for a pet initiative that then takes time to develop, bid for, deliver and manage. 

More fundamentally, the spending review feels unlikely to be one where everyone is a winner: the Treasury wants to limit public spending and there are huge calls from all public services for more money. 

We have argued for an extra £1.9 billion per year to get adult participation in learning back to 2010 levels (of course, we would like to go beyond that too). 

But I won’t be betting the mortgage on that happening. 

Extra money won’t solve everything, but reforms cannot fix the challenge without adequate investment either. Which brings us back to the start: the new secretary of state faces many of the same challenges as his predecessors.

A focus on outcomes is the right thing to do, but it needs to be alongside a long-term lifelong learning strategy, backed by investment. 

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  1. Trying to emulate the US by deeper analysis and publishing more data may appear a good idea but worth asking bigger questions, such as;

    How successful has the US model been? pretty much the worst social mobility scores in the west, huge student debt as the cost of learning is increasingly diverted away from the state, then away from employers and on to the individual. Lots of vested interests in the student debt pile, such as labour market analysis companies…

    Opening up HMRC data matching further at a College or individual level favours the organisations that have the resources to leverage benefit from that data – It may appear that it has benefits for the individual, but it stacks the game against them.