The departing skills minister did well to lead in a pandemic but was too college-focused, writes Jane Hickie
There is no doubt that Gillian Keegan brought prominence to the FE agenda as minister for apprenticeships and skills. Indeed, she was the first former apprentice to hold the office.
Leading on the FE white paper and the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, was no mean feat in just 19 months in post, never mind during a global pandemic. Keegan should be congratulated for her leadership during this time.
We at AELP welcomed many aspects of the white paper, not least the outcomes-focused, employer-led approach to skills. However, we have concerns that cannot be ignored.
The skills Bill’s focus on greater protection of learners and apprentices is not only reasonable but sensible. But we are concerned about the proposed “list of relevant providers”.
No consultation has taken place on the conditions, and the government itself acknowledges that this could mean “significant costs” being imposed on smaller providers delivering niche provision.
Keegan and her team could have listened and done more to ensure providers will not be saddled with more bureaucracy and unnecessary costs. The focus needs to be on post-pandemic recovery for both learners and providers.
We also have concerns about how local skills improvement plans will articulate the needs of all learners, providers and employers, and avoid duplication at a local level.
The extension of the Baker Clause was a really positive aspect of the white paper, so it was disappointing not to see this included in the Bill.
So now we welcome the new minister, Alex Burghart, and urge him to take these concerns on board.
One thing he could do is listen to the whole sector. I had a good working relationship with Keegan and she was always happy to meet with our members.
But many providers felt she was incredibly college-focused, rather than understanding and listening to providers of all types.
This may well have impacted her decision-making, particularly the government’s continued agenda to reduce the number of providers delivering.
Instead, we need a whole-system approach that values providers of all types.
Independent training providers should not be pigeon-holed as only delivering apprenticeships and at lower levels. Nor should there be disappointing insinuations from within government about the quality of provision.
There shouldn’t be disappointing insinuations about the quality of provision
The vast majority of ITPs are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted – 81 per cent at the latest count.
There is no doubt that the chancellor’s support of apprenticeships and traineeships throughout the pandemic, and the Plan for Jobs, has been a game-changer for learners, businesses and providers.
I have no doubt that Keegan championed this agenda and secured key funding for the sector. However, these financial incentives (which come to an end on 30 September) must be extended.
This is crucial if we are to have any hope of tackling disadvantage, getting young people into training and work and narrowing the skills gap exacerbating workforce shortages.
Burghart, as a former teacher and lecturer, will have a decent understanding of the sector and our challenges. His challenge over the coming months will be steering the Bill through the House of Commons ̶ keeping what’s good, while hopefully addressing our key concerns.
He should also be ready to come out fighting for additional FE funding as part of the spending review. It will be a bunfight, and we need the voice of FE to be heard loud and clear.
There must be long-term financial sustainability of the apprenticeships programme, support for SME apprenticeships, an ongoing suite of support for young people and entry-level apprentices, and fairer funding for maths and English functional skills.
This would put apprenticeships on a sustainable footing and offer parity between academic and vocational education.
We are ready and waiting to support the new minister’s ambitions. I would urge Burghart to listen ̶ really listen ̶ to the sector.