Skills reform

Here are 4 things the FE White Paper missed out

21 Jan 2021, 12:53

Verdict on the White Paper? Fine start but requires improvement, writes Stephen Evans

“We must put employers’ needs for skills centre stage. We must make colleges and training providers more responsive to employers’ and learners’ needs, reaching out to more businesses and more people, and providing training in ways that suit them.  

“Creating a truly demand-led approach means reforming qualifications, reforming the way we fund colleges, and reforming the way we deliver training.” 

It’s difficult to argue with this quote from the White Paper. Unfortunately, it’s from the 2003 Skills White Paper.  

Will this latest publication be the moment we look back on as when we finally “cracked it”?  

Short answer: only with investment, more radical change, and sustained commitment.  

The good 

Perhaps the White Paper’s main contributions are to put further education centre stage, which matters after the last decade, and to provide helpful hooks for future change.  

For example, I welcome plans to focus more on the outcomes of learning. We’ve long argued for that and worked with the Greater London Authority on it, though the details will be key.  

The intention to look at multi-year funding is great too and, while there’s a balance between simplicity and targeting support, it would be good to simplify the current complex funding and accountability arrangements. 

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee, focus on apprenticeships, and commitment to increase investment, while already announced, are also really welcome – there’s more to do, but it’s great to be talking about how to invest rather than what to cut. 

A point, though, about language. When I worked in government, I was advised not to describe reforms as “radical”, as discussion of this White Paper often has: people would notice if they were, otherwise you’d be over selling.  

No White Paper can solve everything, so it’s important the government doesn’t over claim its impact: better to argue there’s a big plan, moving in the right direction.   

Missing or more needed 

This White Paper aims to align provision with local economic need and deliver better outcomes.  

But how will the new Local Skills Improvement Plans, to be agreed by colleges, employers and others, fit with devolution in parts of England?  

What traction will these plans have? Isn’t this what Skills Advisory Panels were meant to do?  

Similarly, the White Paper would have benefited from more recognition of the wider benefits of learning (health, citizenship etc) and breadth of provision.  

And while there’s lots of talk of employer leadership, I can’t see very much about how we raise their demand for and investment in skills. 

Now here are four areas where the White Paper must go further: 

  1. Investment

We need substantial and sustained investment after a decade of cuts that have left millions fewer adults taking part in learning. There’s little new money here, so let’s hope the government is working on a long-term funding settlement for the next spending review. 

  1. Basic skills

Nine million adults have low literacy or numeracy, but participation in learning has plummeted. More than 20 years on from the Moser Report, which drove a significant focus on this challenge, it’s disappointing not to see greater ambition. 

  1. Retraining

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee is great, but its focused on a first level 3, so we need more help for those needing a level 2 or to retrain at level 3, as well as with maintenance costs. With longer working lives and a changing economy we need to be think bigger. 

  1. Joining up

How will we align skills with employment support, like Kickstart and Restart? What about local government. There is little mentioned apart from Mayoral Combined Authorities, for instance. 


It’s great the White Paper puts further education centre stage – there’s lots of positives already in train to shout about, and some interesting new ideas.  

But to avoid becoming another footnote in the history of skills policy, we’ll need long-term funding and commitment to more radical action.  

Perhaps not a giant leap, but hopefully several steps in the right direction. 

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  1. Michael Woodgate

    Yes, the White paper is nothing if not original:
    Local Skills Improvement Plans – er TECs, LEPs?

    A Skills and Productivity Board to Ensure government has up-to-date and expert advice on the labour market and national skills gaps – er, SSDA; UKCES?

    “Align the substantial majority of post-16 technical and higher technical education and training to employer-led standards” – er, NOS?

    “Continue to support participation in English, maths, and digital training to meet employers’ needs and support people to progress in employment or further study.” – er, Basic Skills/Skills for Life?

    “Invite proposals through the Strategic Development Fund to establish College Business Centres within further education colleges to work with employers in a designated sector on business development and innovation” er, CoVEs?

    Is there any reason to think these “new” initiatives will succeed where these previous ones have failed?