Focus on adult education is promising – but lacks ambition

4 Feb 2022, 18:00

It is also surprising the levelling up white paper has so little to say on green skills, write Aveek Bhattacharya and Amy Norman

For those of us who have been following the government’s skills and post-18 education policy, the levelling up white paper was very familiar. We knew many of the key announcements already: local skills improvement plans, lifetime skills guarantee, more skills bootcamps. 

But although the skills sections of the white paper may have contained more rhetoric than fresh policy meat, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  

Certainly, it is encouraging that the government has made such a strong and explicit connection between the levelling project and investment in skills and training.

The fact that the government wants to talk so much about post-18 education is a positive signal about its prominence in its policy agenda. After years of relative neglect, that should not be taken for granted. 

Perhaps the most significant new announcement was the government’s stated “mission” to get 200,000 more people a year successfully completing high-quality skills training, with 80,000 of them in the lowest skilled areas.  

What constitutes “high quality” remains vague in the paper, but this renewed focus on adult education is promising.  

At the same time, however, this target is too modest, recovering only a quarter of the 800,000 lost learners in the past decade.  

That lack of ambition reflects a broader failure to recognise the amount of ground that needs to be made up when it comes to further and adult education.  

By 2024/25, per student college funding will be down ten per cent on 2010/11 levels, and adult education spending will be 15 per cent lower overall than 2009/10.  

There was at least more action in the primary education section of the white paper, with another mission to ensure 90 per cent of children achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030.  

If achieved, this would have downstream ramifications for FE and adult education, which play a key role in teaching basic skills to those that missed out in school – although that impact would not be felt for a decade or two.  

In any case, it is questionable whether the government’s measures to achieve this target are up to the job. These measures include focusing resources on “education investment areas”, encouraging the best academy trusts to support weaker schools and creating an online “national academy”. 

It is questionable whether the government’s measures are up to the job

The white paper also recognises the economic opportunities for levelling up from emerging clean industries that are central to a net zero economy. These green jobs will require skills transformations across the UK workforce, particularly in carbon-intensive industrial heartlands.  

Given this, it is surprising to have so little detail on the policy proposals for delivering green skills. As it stands, skills bootcamps and apprenticeship standards are limited in their offer for green skills, particularly related to home heat and electric vehicles. 

That said, it remains to be seen whether the Department for Education’s latest invitation to tender for bootcamp providers will address these gaps. 

As for the rest of the white paper, the overwhelming majority of the policy commitments it contained have been announced and re-announced several times in the past few months.

We already knew about local skills improvement plans, which bring employers, colleges and other institutions together to ensure their offering meets local labour market needs.  

And we knew about the expansion of skills bootcamps, offering rapid intensive training in shortage areas. And about investment in the FE college estate. We also knew about new institutes of technology, which are collaborations of colleges and universities to deliver higher technical education.

And we’d been told about the lifetime skills guarantee, offering free level 3 qualifications to those with low previous attainment.  

All were trumpeted in the white paper, and none was new.  

Then again, it is unreasonable to expect the government to promise new billions every time it makes a statement on education.  

There have been a lot of statements on education in the past year or so: the skills white paper, a comprehensive spending review, multiple fiscal events and an ad hoc speech from the prime minister on skills.  

So although the levelling up white paper does not provide anything substantially new for skills or further education policy, it does emphatically reaffirm the government’s commitment to the skills agenda. 

The task for the coming years is ensuring they fully deliver on that commitment.

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