Last summer, I wrote for FE Week about factors that bodies developing local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) should consider if they want to make them a success. In the months since, the government has published its statutory guidance for the development of LSIPs. Stakeholders that include mayoral combined authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local authorities will come together to set out the key priorities and changes needed to make post-16 technical education or training more responsive and closely aligned to local labour market needs.
Given that the number of unfilled jobs rose to 1.3 million in March last year (the highest ever recorded), LSIPs evidently couldn’t come soon enough. However, the solution is not as simple as a lack of responsiveness in our education system.
Although vacancies are high, there are also an estimated 6.2 million workers (19.8 per cent of the UK labour market) experiencing severely insecure work (defined as involuntarily part-time and/or temporary employment).
One possible explanation for this mismatch between supply and demand is that an estimated 9 million adults in England (of whom 5 million are in work) have low basic skills.
Basic skills are generally defined as a proficient level of literacy to comprehend, interpret and evaluate complex texts and a proficient level of numeracy to solve mathematical problems in a real context. In qualification terms, they are the equivalent to a level 2 (eg GCSE). Digital skills are also increasingly included within definitions.
While some of the 1.3 million vacancies are in technical professions such as nursing and software development, many others are in lower and intermediately skilled jobs such as care workers, sales and retail assistants, cleaning and domestic staff, and trades such as metal working, carpentry and joinery.
Instead of amending post-16 provision – much of which is directly aligned to employer standards (such as T Levels, HTQs and apprenticeships) or informed by employer panels (such as many BTECs and City and Guilds qualifications) – supporting the 9 million individuals who currently lack basic skills would arguably be a more effective way of tackling labour market shortages. Level 2 English and maths qualifications would enable these individuals to fill many of England’s vacancies directly or to continue in education to fill higher-skill roles.
At London South Bank University, for example, the NHS trusts we work with will sometimes propose health care support workers for our apprenticeship programmes, but they often lack the required level 2 English and maths qualifications for entry. The LSBU Group structure, which includes Lambeth College, enables us to run pre-enrolment programmes to help candidates overcome this. Over the next few years, the college will develop a “hub and spoke” model to increase the accessibility of its adult education programmes by delivering it in community buildings in the evenings.
Unfortunately, the government does not appear to have made this connection. A month before publishing the LSIP guidance, the Department for Education concluded its consultation on Implementing a new FE funding and accountability system, which proposed removing the ringfence for community learning within the adult education budget. This will hugely undermine the ability of colleges and local authorities to help adults (particularly those who are most disadvantaged) to make the first step back into education.
In the autumn statement, the chancellor committed another £2.3 billion to the core schools’ budget while providing no extra funding for colleges or adult education; and just this week the prime minister announced an ambition for all young people to study maths up to age 18. Neither will help to upskill the 5 million adults already in the workforce, but insufficiently skilled to meet the demand for staff.
Sadly, this is setting up yet another well-intentioned policy initiative for failure. If the government truly wants LSIPs to support skills provision and local economic growth, it needs to invest in adult education.