Skills reform

Sector gives FE white paper the thumbs up

The FE white paper has been given a warm welcome by sector leaders and FE Week readers, with almost two thirds rating it as ‘good’.

FE Week today ran a webcast in partnership with NCFE exploring the much-anticipated ‘Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth’ document, which was published last Thursday.

The white paper included more than 30 proposals and while the majority repeat or build on current reforms, there were some new announcements including ‘Local Skills Improvement Plans’ and greater intervention powers for the education secretary.

During today’s webcast, a panel of sector leaders gave their views on the white paper and were asked to rate it out of ten, while the watching audience was also asked whether they thought the white paper was ‘amazing’, ‘good’, ‘fair’, ‘poor’, or ‘awful’.

Around 700 of the 1,150 audience members voted with 64 per cent saying it was ‘good’, 34 per cent saying it was ‘fair’, one per cent saying it was ‘amazing’ and the same amount saying it was ‘poor’.

As for the sector leaders, Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes rated the white paper as an eight out of ten.

Hughes explained his score, saying: “I think there’s a lot of opportunity in it.

“I don’t think it’s perfect, it does not cover everything. There’s lots of areas for development, but there’s a commitment to do that work with us.”

Policy director for adult education network HOLEX Susan Pember said she would have given the white paper a score of six out of ten on Friday. Yet she had had a rethink, saying during her presentation that “there are some brilliant things in there,” and ended up giving it a nine – the highest score of all the panellists.

Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director Jane Hickie gave an eight and a half score on behalf of her members.

She lamented the “noticeable absence” of a strategy for level 2 and below in the white paper, saying: “We need to provide people with an opportunity from the bottom up.”

But Hickie said it was a “really good thing” the white paper said the government would take ‘tougher’ formal action against schools which do not comply with the Baker Clause, which mandates schools to allow FE and skills providers talk to pupils about potential study routes.

David Russell, chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation, rated it as an eight out of ten and said that was a “really good” rating for a government white paper.

As FE Week editor Nick Linford, who hosted the webcast, pointed out: Hughes, Pember and Russell have all worked in Whitehall during their careers, overseeing multiple reform attempts, so their high scores for this latest white paper were “quite tremendous”.

NCFE chief executive David Gallagher would not be drawn on a numbered score, joking that his awarding body “will apply an algorithm and get back to you”.

Pushed by Linford for a score, Gallagher said he “never likes to fall into the trap” of rating out of ten, but did say: “The constraints we’ve got means we haven’t got a landmark paper.”

The devil’s in the detail with these things

A number of panellists spoke about how the white paper appears to have been restrained by having a one-year, rather than a multi-year, funding settlement.

Skills minister Gillian Keegan told FE Week in an interview last week: “Obviously having a three-year settlement is great because it gives visibility, it gives that long-term money,” but she claimed the one-year settlement had not hampered the white paper’s speed or boldness.

Today, Gallagher did credit the document for “making sense,” and for there being “nothing any of us are wildly opposing”.

“But the devil’s in the detail with these things, so I would be slightly less generous than colleagues based on those concerns but not massively so,” he added.

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