Opinion

New powers in Skills Bill point to radical loss of autonomy for colleges

20 May 2021, 13:38



Government is taking more control but the Skills Bill will only be a success if young people are kept at the heart of it, writes Angela Donkin

The new Skills Bill has been published with a legal requirement for employers and colleges to work together to fill local skills gaps.

The DfE’s press release does a good sell – it cites a skills shortage and research illustrating that 26 year olds with level 4 or 5 technical qualifications can earn more than those with a degree.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting development. It has long been my view that too much emphasis is placed on the A-Level, degree route.

Indeed, I walk the walk. One of my children has been studying a range of BTECs and GCSEs since she was 14 in a university technical college.

That choice was made precisely because the curriculum is linked with the needs of the creative industries in which she is interested in working.

This Bill should make it easier for other young people like my daughter to take that pragmatic step where it suits them.

However, as with any piece of legislation, the devil is in the detail. Let’s look at carrots and sticks.

The incentives include an £83 million fund to build facilities in areas where there are shortages of places given the demographics. There’s also a flexible grant to allow people to afford to be trained.

This makes sense – we need the buildings, and the demand for the courses.

There appear to be more incentives for level 3 or higher qualifications, so we must ensure the Bill does not hinder the availability of alternative level 2 routes where needed.

How will this be achieved?

Firstly, a power to sanction FE colleges for not delivering a local skills plan and, secondly, a power to intervene when colleges are failing to deliver good outcomes for the communities they serve.

These are interesting new powers as they point to a quite radical loss of autonomy for FE colleges.

While the importance of training young people with necessary skills is obvious, it’s vital that young people are at the heart of this, and that they have choice.

For this bill to tackle issues such as social mobility it still requires one vital legal requirement.

While colleges will have sanctions for not delivering, what about employers?

And if sanctions aren’t possible or realistic, what about meaningful and relevant incentives?

There is nothing in the bill regarding sanctioning employers should they fail to offer purposeful opportunities for young people.

As it stands, in local areas with many low paid workers, we could get to a position where we are sanctioning colleges for failing to train young adults to join the 4 million who are in work but also in poverty.

No one wants that to happen.

We know that opportunities for young adults are not evenly distributed across the country

So that takes us to the issues of local jobs. We know that opportunities for young adults are not evenly distributed across the country.

This means that in areas with poor prospects, we first need to improve the quality of work available.

Second, we must ensure there is a wider range of courses at different levels to accommodate everyone’s different career ambitions. These might not be linked to skills needed in local areas where there are poor prospects.

Third, we must ensure students can afford to travel further away for opportunities to study or work if needed.

I’m hoping that this is a really important step change in skills education. However, we must ensure that young people are kept at the heart of this and that colleges and employers work together for that reason.

We know there are issues around existing apprenticeships, particularly at level 3 and above, currently favouring large employers with subsidised higher level training courses.

Meanwhile lower level apprenticeships have reduced significantly in number. This has had a disproportionate impact on young adults from more disadvantaged areas and on small employers.

So we must ensure we look carefully at the detail and avoid stumbling into a situation where we have inadvertently exacerbated inequity.



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One comment

  1. Derek Tikkey

    Angela Donkin needs to be listened to? She is the first person who has put the student before the political ambitions of the government in the skills bill.
    As she states, we must ensure there is a wider range of courses at different levels to accommodate everyone’s different career ambitions. These might not be linked to skills needed in local areas where there are poor prospects.
    For too long colleges have been restricted and young people have been forced to follow careers linked to the local economy. No wonder schools still promote A levels as the way to get a good career.