The government is reviewing a much-vaunted platform that signposts people to free skills courses after coming under fire for publishing and celebrating unreliable data.
Figures for registrations and completions of courses featuring on the “skills toolkit” are supposed to be updated monthly but have not been published by the Department for Education since May 2022.
The DfE told FE Week it has paused the release of this data because officials “do not yet have reliable skills toolkit statistics due to lack of complete data returns from all providers.
“We are reviewing the operation of the skills toolkit and will confirm our plans in due course,” the DfE added.
More than £1 million of public money has been spent on developing and advertising the “skills toolkit”, which consists of a web page on the National Careers Service and directs visitors to free online content provided by the likes of Amazon, the Open University, Microsoft and LinkedIn.
It was launched in April 2020, shortly after the first Covid-19 lockdown began, to help people boost digital and numeracy skills during the pandemic.
Ministers were quick to hail the platform, with then education secretary Gavin Williamson describing it as having a “transformational impact on so many people taking furlough” during a speech in October 2020. But a previous FE Week investigation found that many of the courses are simply short video tutorials or PDF documents that people can stop and start, with no tuition and no external quality assurance. Despite this, ministers repeatedly claimed the skills toolkit courses were “high-quality”.
FE Week previously revealed how significant overcounting led to revised estimates of “registration” claims, which can include web hits from anywhere in the world, as course providers do not filter for geographical locations. FE Week also revealed how some course “completions” were being counted when users spent three minutes looking at one of the online resources.
The DfE publishes “experimental” skills toolkit data alongside its monthly apprenticeships and traineeships statistics release. The publication does point out the limitations of the data and makes clear that reporting of registrations and completions varies by provider.
In March 2021, the Office for Statistics Regulation reprimanded the DfE over the data after FE Week’s findings raised concerns, especially after inaccurate registration figures were told to parliament.
Since then, it appears the toolkit has reduced in size: there was almost 80 courses to choose from but there are now just 61.
The DfE’s data release claims that as of May 2022, there have been about 256,200 course registrations and 51,700 course completions.