Optimism and realism: Five takeways from the AELP national conference

My first national conference in my new role for AELP highlighted challenges and opportunities ahead for a sector primed for change

My first national conference in my new role for AELP highlighted challenges and opportunities ahead for a sector primed for change

28 Jun 2024, 9:25

This week’s AELP National Conference was my first as the organisation’s director of membership and growth and it was a great way to start my second week in post. I’ve learned a lot. Just as importantly I’ve felt a wave of optimism about the sector’s future. Here are my five main takeaways.

Appetite for change

There was a buzz around the national conference that said to me our members are raring to go. With the country on the verge of a general election, our whole sector is ready to step up. If the next government is serious about filling skills gaps to grow the economy, the appetite is there for us all to push in the same direction to meet that ambition.

To do this we need a policy environment in which our members can flourish. The message from conference was that the government needs to get it right on the creation of Skills England, as well as the rules around funding and content of programmes.

Skills means growth

This year’s theme of ‘Skills Means Growth’ allowed us to look deeper into the reasons why we’re all so passionate about skills. Hearing from Anthony Impey MBE from Be The Business put into sharp focus the UK’s productivity problem and how that has led to stagnant economic growth.

“Productivity is not everything – but almost everything”, he said, before outlining that poor productivity gains since the 2008 financial crash have left us £11,000 per person worse off.

With investment in skills being a key driver of productivity, The Learning and Work Institute’s Stephen Evans shared some stark slides showing the decline in skills funding and its impact over the past 15 years.

Investment levels in the UK sit at less than half the EU average. We’ve also seen a 20 per cent cut in the skills budget since 2010.

Skills means economic growth, but it also means personal growth and improving social mobility. Tight funding in skills has impacted the most disadvantaged in doing so hitting personal growth among those who would benefit from it most.

Challenges and opportunities

Unless the opinion polls are completely wrong, there will be a new government in place after next Thursday. Any change of leadership – political or otherwise – brings some turbulence. But while change brings challenges, it also brings opportunities.

Broadcaster and author, Matthew Syed gave an inspirational speech on how we can build resilient and adaptable organisations. He spoke of ensuring a growth mindset and not being afraid of innovation.

The sector will need to show resilience and learn to adapt, but that’s what we’re good at. After all, we certainly get enough practice!

Celebrating our civic mission

Understandably, we talk a lot about apprenticeships – popular, rigorous programmes that combine learning with a real job. But there’s so much more that we do, and we need to shout more loudly about that!

The work ITPs do with learners on 16-19 study programmes is the hidden jewel of FE. Tens of thousands of lives are improved every year as a result of the hard work our members put in. The adult education sector and skills bootcamps shouldn’t be forgotten about either.

Reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training and giving the most disadvantaged in society the opportunity to improve their lot is at the core of what we do. Our members will welcome any government that values and empowers that.

A powerful conversation

Conference played host to fascinating and optimistic discussions among delegates, sponsors, exhibitors and staff, on and off stage.

But this is just the start of the conversation. It’s clear that we can and should inform and support an incoming government to set the conditions for a flourishing skills system.

We will shortly be launching the first of our mini commissions, which are designed to shift the dial on a range of important skills issues, and we’ll also be continuing our regulatory burden project to reduce the administrative burden on providers.

We need AELP members to help us on this journey, and I look forward to meeting and speaking with more and more people across the sector over the coming months.

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