The skills white paper must create a coherent system but local authorities are needed to provide the links and oversight, write Ruth Lupton and Stephanie Thomson
Andy Norman was right. At the end of January the research analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy argued in these pages it’s “risky business to have an employer-dominated skills system”.
In confirming that devolution has no part in government plans to transform post-16 education and training, last month’s FE white paper missed a crucial opportunity.
It was an opportunity to build a more coherent system, fit to serve the needs of individuals as well as employers.
Holes in progression routes
The impact that a poorly coordinated post-16 system is having on the 40 per cent of young people without at least a grade 4 in both English and maths was explored in our recently published research for the Nuffield Foundation called ‘Moving on from GCSE “failure”’
The structure and nature of provision is part of the problem. Every local area has a different mix of academic, vocational and apprenticeship provision and institutional arrangements. Some provision is clearly linked to local labour market needs – for example, where a large local employer or growth sector stimulates demand for skills.
But employer demand waxes and wanes and financial pressures, competition and incentives mean that local provision can be volatile. This creates holes in progression routes that young people (and adults) find difficult to climb out of.
Greater coordination between employers and providers is needed, but it is hard to see how the linkage to the local labour market promised by the white paper will work if strategic authorities responsible for industrial strategy, planning and transport are not involved.
To do this, combined and local authorities need to be centrally involved in provision planning and given capacity to commission specific provision (in the 16- to 18-age phase as well as for adults) where this aligns with local priorities.
Lack of local oversight
But making the system work better isn’t just about getting provision right and expecting learners to make informed choices. Our research revealed many blockages to progress, including transport links.
However, the two key issues were local practices around entry requirements and inadequate guidance and support.
Most geographic areas in our study had a vast array of provision, but once GCSE-based entry requirements were taken into account, this narrowed dramatically, giving some young people limited choice about what they did after school.
For those who did not move straight to A-levels, the rush to identify suitable courses or apprenticeships following GCSE results created too many risks of drop-out or direction change.
Many GCSE “lower attainers” were not ready to make career decisions and reported that advice and support had been minimal. Yet no one locally has an oversight of these linkages between the pre- and post-16 phases, nor the authority to intervene.
Capacity to map provision needed
To improve the way the system works, the local state, whether combined or local authorities, needs the analytical capacity to map the provision that exists and, crucially, the associated entry requirements.
This way, gaps in provision could be properly identified and action taken with providers to make sure entry requirements are appropriate and do not block progress.
This capacity would underpin the building of progression pathways and foster collaboration and information flows across pre- and post-16 phases.
It would identify young people at risk of dropping out. It would form the basis of a wraparound support service starting in year 11 and continuing through to 19 to help young people construct a career pathway that recognises they might need to take sideways moves.
Supporting post-16 progression demands not just better employer-provider collaboration but strategic oversight and practical intervention in education and training sub-systems, from school to adult learning.
If we are to persist with a centrally funded and regulated market approach, we need to find much better ways to make it work locally.
This means trusting local leaders to ensure that the white paper’s proposals don’t just create a new set of cracks for young people (and adults) to fall through.