Delivery challenges ahead as skills bill finally gains royal assent

New laws will bring in an official list of post-16 skills providers and rules for increased apprenticeships guidance in schools.

New laws will bring in an official list of post-16 skills providers and rules for increased apprenticeships guidance in schools.

28 Apr 2022, 12:39

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Skills Bill

Legislation central to the government’s reforms to further education and skills is officially on the statute book.

The skills and post-16 education act 2022 was confirmed in parliament today as one of the final pieces of legislation to get over the line as the current session of parliament came to an end this afternoon. 

Alex Burghart, the skills minister said the new act would “transform the skills, training and post-16 education landscape and level up opportunities across the country.”

“This legislation will make sure everyone can gain the skills they need to progress into a rewarding job, and businesses have access to a pipeline of talented, qualified employees for their workforces – boosting productivity” he said.

It’s taken 11 months for the skills bill to officially become an act of parliament. 

Since its introduction in the House of Lords in May 2021, the bill had a rocky journey through parliament, including several government defeats in Lords debates and high profile rebellions by senior Tories.

Former conservative education secretary Lord Baker and education committee chair Robert Halfon MP successfully took on the government to increase the number “mandatory encounters” that school pupils have with technical education and training providers.

When Nadhim Zahawi replaced Gavin Williamson as education secretary, he delayed the defunding of level 3 qualifications that overlap with T Levels by one year. 

Attempts by Labour to delay this even further were unsuccessful, however their efforts did force the government to clarify that only a “small proportion” of qualifications will face the chop.

This was welcomed by the Sixth Form Colleges Association which is leading the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, whose chief executive, Bill Watkin, told FE Week: “The skills act performs two valuable roles for the sixth form sector.

“First, it sets back the defunding of BTEC qualifications by one year, and second, it allows Catholic sixth form colleges to become 16 to 19 academies. Both are welcome developments that we intend to build on and will benefit thousands of young people in England.”

MPs and sector campaigners pushing for universal credit flexibilities and for tighter rules around who should be involved in local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) were defeated over the course of the bill’s journey through parliament. 

“We would have liked to have seen the lifetime skills guarantee on the face of the bill, the role of colleges as co-constructors of LSIPs formalised, and a commitment to look at the rules around Universal Credit conditionality” said David Hughes, chief executive at the Association of Colleges.

While much attention has been paid to level 3 qualifications and careers advice, the act gives the secretary of state a host of new powers over the FE and skills sector.

For example, the secretary of state now has legal powers to designate and remove designation of employer representative bodies (ERBs) responsible for developing LSIPs. They also have powers to introduce “statutory guidance” to tell ERBs who they should consult with and what should go in to their LSIPs.

The lifelong loan entitlement now also has some statutory underpinning. The flagship policy to provide loans with four years of post-18 education for modular and full qualifications at levels 4 to 6 is set to come on stream in 2025 and is currently out for public consultation.

Another of the secretary of state’s new powers is to introduce an official list of approved post-16 training providers along with new conditions for registration and restricting access to funding to providers on that list. 

The act introduces new duties on college governing bodies to review and publish how their education and training offer is meeting local skills needs. The secretary of state gains new powers to use the intervention system where providers are failing in this duty.

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education gets powers to approve and withdraw approval for technical qualifications under the act. 

Its chief executive, Jennifer Coupland, said “Following passage of this landmark legislation, we can look forward to creating a unified skills system which is simpler to understand and employers and learners can really trust. 

“IfATE has empowered employers to drive up the quality of apprenticeships and roll out exciting new T Levels. The time is now right to extend the employer-led reforms across technical education.”

Leaders in the sector are now turning their attention to implementation.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ director of public affairs, Rebecca Durber, welcomed greater access to schools for her members, but told FE Week “officials must offer reassurance that the costs and requirements to join the list of post-16 providers will be proportionate and not squeeze smaller providers out of the market”.

Ministers have already been criticised for “reneging upon promises” by the Federation of Awarding Bodies’ chief executive, Tom Bewick, who says that his members were promised by officials that there were no plans to charge awarding organisations to have their qualifications approved by IfATE.

“Before the ink is even dry on the new legislation, we see that ministers have already instructed the Institute to develop a fees and charging regime. We believe this will divert millions of pounds away from course innovation and supporting learners,” Bewick said.

Looking ahead, Learning and Work Institute boss Stephen Evans told FE Week that while the act has “good measures like the lifelong loan entitlement”, it doesn’t address the shortfall in funding needed for retraining. 

Evans told FE Week: “We need to focus on delivery. That requires more public funding to reduce the £750 million real terms shortfall compared to 2010, policy reform to better support retraining and apprenticeships, and a laser-like focus on joining up support. It is these that will help to determine if these reforms stand the test of time. 

“The passing of this bill is not an end, it is a beginning.”

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