A “data deficit” is responsible for the persistent failure of UK skills policy, explains Andy Norman, who wants to establish a new FE statistics agency

While it may seem like the skills discourse is reaching a political crescendo, appreciation of its importance is really nothing new.

Researchers and politicians alike have waxed lyrical about the need to build an effective skills system for well over a century. Translating this into improved outcomes for learners, businesses and the wider economy, however, has too often been beyond the power of public policy.

Near-continuous policy attention and reform has yielded few noticeable gains in recent performance, and there must be something fundamental missing.

The first report from the Centre for Progressive Policy – entitled ‘The data deficit: Why a lack of information undermines the UK skill system’ – argues that the root cause of this persistent policy failure is the lack of information on a range of aspects of the post-16 education system, from course quality to expected salaries. This data deficit prevents optimal decision-making, leaving learners, providers and policymakers in the dark.

Take employment outcomes as one example. In terms of higher education graduates, we have a pretty good idea of what they are doing after they graduate.

We have no systematic understanding of which FE courses lead to relevant employment, and which don’t

Detailed destinations data in the form of employment outcomes is available via the ‘Destination of leavers from higher education’ (DLHE) survey. We can gain a good understanding of which jobs graduates are doing six months later, right down to the lowest level of occupation classifications.

No such data exists for further education.

Essentially, we have no systematic understanding of which FE courses lead to relevant employment, and which don’t.

This matters for a whole host of reasons. It means policymakers struggle to understand which courses they should be incentivising and investing in. It means prospective learners choose courses based on hunches rather than reliable employment prospects. It means careers advisors lack the information they need to effectively guide their clients.

Improvements are being made – principally via the longitudinal educational outcomes dataset – and our understanding of what FE graduates are earning is improving. However, without combining this with detailed occupational employment data we are none the wiser about why earnings differ.

For example, are sports and fitness graduates earning less because they don’t find relevant jobs, or because they find relevant jobs which happen to pay badly? Do engineering technician graduates earn a lot because they move straight into relevant employment, or do these courses provide strong transferable skills that allow people to move into lucrative non-engineering roles? We just don’t know. And if we don’t know, you can be sure that the average 16-year-old thinking about what to do after their GCSEs doesn’t either.

The data deficit also includes basic earnings information for 16-to 18-year-olds completing technical courses. The DfE hopes to publish information about this group’s pathway out of school and into the labour market in the future.

However, compared to the level of detail already available for HE, these patchy, piecemeal efforts are clearly inadequate. HE data is currently collected, processed and published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). HESA was established after the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 identified a “need for a more aligned and coordinated approach to higher education statistics and information”.

Such a need now exists in FE and so perhaps the time has come for the establishment of a Further Education Statistics Authority, or “FESA”. This is something that the Centre for Progressive Policy wants to take forward in the next few months, so please do get in touch if this is of interest.

We should not pretend that improving the quality of the data available is the panacea to all the country’s skills problems. Yet it is difficult to see how systemic improvements can be made while decent data remains so scarce. A well-resourced FESA could be the catalyst for building the successful system this country so desperately needs.

Andy Norman is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy

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