“Progression, progression, progression” should be Labour’s election slogan

We need a unified holistic skills strategy across government to meet current and future challenges

We need a unified holistic skills strategy across government to meet current and future challenges

24 May 2024, 5:00

Last week, Right to Learn launched Future Priorities for Lifelong Learning, Skills and Tertiary Education. It contains ten recommendations that are backed up by a wide coalition of organisations across FE, skills, HE, careers and more.

With a general election now scheduled for July following local and mayoral elections in which skills, jobs, productivity and regeneration were prominent on the doorstep, policy makers and political parties are scurrying to craft their manifestos.

For FE and skills, a workable Lifelong Learning Entitlement and collaboration across Whitehall are critical lifelines.

Back in March 2023 Right to Learn anticipated some of the holes in the LLE legislation. In our written evidence to the bill committee, we warned about cutting it off for people over 60. We argued, armed with Learning and Work Institute statistics, that getting the 1.5+ million would-be learners aged 40 to 60+ who had dropped out of economic activity since the pandemic was a priority.

We also argued, alongside David Blunkett, that the department for work and pensions was failing to use their local job centres to address these challenges. Mostly, they seemed  to pressure clients to take inappropriate or poorly-paid jobs rather than allow universal credit claimants to retrain and reskill.

And along with City & Guilds and others, we gave evidence that young people, NEETs and particularly women were struggling for help and work.

Scorched earth

Yet instead of an LLE Mark II, ministers are clinging to Mark I like limpets to a rock and over-relying on T Levels and degree apprenticeships as their Holy Grail.

If there is an overriding theme to our work, it is ‘progression, progression, progression’. Without it, the pipeline will run dry and life chances for would-be learners of all ages will be lost

Keynes famously said “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”. New skills minister Luke Hall’s answer seems to be to double down with a scorched earth policy by expanding the defunding of BTECs and other qualifications below level 3.

The FE sector is livid, its calls to delay to September 2025 roundly ignored.

March of the mayors

As it is now, with Rishi Sunak’s snap general election in July, the only groups who can plan effectively and get spades in the ground are elected mayors, combined authorities and others whose funding is devolved from Whitehall.

The local elections swept into office a clutch of new Labour mayors covering smaller towns , coastal and rural communities to reinforce the big city mayors.

And if Labour does gain power, Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves and Angela Rayner will see them as key allies for skills, productivity and growth, with lifelong learning central to upgrading, upskilling and reskilling towards net zero, housing and regeneration.

These devolved initiatives should spur the FE sector to be part of their action locally, reviving an all-ages formula that was whittled away under Tory austerity.

Skills England is a central enabler for Labour’s industrial strategy. But what will it look like? Can we hope to get rid of the vast apprenticeship underspend claw-back? Will we see more collaboration across departments on a meaningful skills strategy? And will we see more devolution, beyond mayoral authorities?

Heads up

We’ll soon see. Meanwhile Labour has to be aware of the future of skills as well as ‘must-dos’ coming into office.

The 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices commissioned by Government envisaged a rapid expansion this decade of the gig economy, fuelled by digital. It suggested millions of small businesses, co-operatives, and self-employed would form a critical mass for skills and productivity.

It was largely ignored, but with the rapid impact of AI (for good or ill), net zero and technical skills, it is looking more prophetic. Backed by a mission from a new Government to empower people of all ages to achieve genuine lifelong learning in a tertiary setting, it should be the goal for UK success by 2030.

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One comment

  1. All the effort is put into measuring progression to something.

    No effort or very little effort is put into measuring progression from…

    As a result you end up with half formed arguments for and against and a lack of informed decision making and targeted action. When budgets are tight, the tendency is for salami slicing. When budgets are growing, you increase the risk of waste.