There’s much that’s encouraging in the skills white paper – but we can’t wait another decade for the reforms to fully roll out, says Graham Hasting-Evans
The Skills for Jobs white paper is one of the most fundamental initiatives around further education we have seen in the last decade.
It builds upon the reforms kicked off by Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education in 2011 and the subsequent changes to apprenticeships and vocational and technical qualifications.
There are a lot of good ideas in the white paper and I know people will be keen to get into the detail – where the devil always lies.
I want to touch on the need to ensure further education is properly funded, can continually change to meet fast-paced demand, supports all people across all our communities and enables upskilling. We also need to think about standards and timescales.
Personally, I welcome the direction of the white paper and believe we as a sector need to embrace it, whilst improving on some of the detail.
I’m sure there will be lots of debate on a wide range of topics including the “local skills improvement plans” and how to support staff.
A particularly challenging aspect will be employer involvement in delivering the improved system.
Let’s turn first to need.
‘Level 2s are backbone of the workforce’
We have a great academic system and enjoy worldwide recognition for the quality of our education sector and qualifications. Many of our universities are in the global top 100. All this is very positive.
However, the vast majority of people do not go into ‘academic’ occupations. They go into practical jobs.
If our economy is to be highly productive and enable levelling up, we must ensure our FE technical and vocational system is world-class.
And this system must support all the occupations in our economy, not just those at level 3 and above.
We know some 11.2 million (30 per cent) of jobs in the economy are at level 2 and below, with essential pathways at entry and level 1.
We badly need to upskill this part of the workforce – a significant challenge if we want to improve productivity.
In many important sectors such as business administration, construction and hospitality, roles at level 2 and below are the backbone of the workforce.
In some sectors these roles make up three-quarters of all jobs, and this is not going to change any time soon.
So, we should be funding training and qualifications for level 2 and below as part of the whole system in order to truly level up.
However, the white paper does not make mention of this – it only commits to funding for level 3 and above.
So I recommend the government does commit to continue the funding for entry, level 1 and level 2 for 16 to 19 year olds, as well as adults who need upskilling in the workforce.
‘Internationalisation of standards’
Now on to standards.
In the UK we have disaggregated standards across the various nations. For many occupations we now have an English, Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh occupational standard.
This flies in the face of what is happening in the rest of the world.
Elsewhere we see an internationalisation of standards, with many countries now seeing the standard at the WorldSkills competition as the bar to aim for.
As we update our skills system we should aim for international standards across the four nations.
Timescales are also crucial.
‘Take big steps more quickly’
I appreciate that at the moment we need to focus on the implications of Covid and the challenge of lost learning.
But afterwards we must focus on making the ideas in the white paper a reality as soon as possible.
We must reflect on the fact that our current programme of reforms kicked off 10 years ago, and we still have around five years more implementation ahead of us to fully complete the current T Level roll-out. It has taken a long time.
When technology is radically changing every three to six months, skills reform must keep pace. We need to make the big steps forward very quickly, in years not decades.
And we must have a system that we can easily and readily update and revise.
If we don’t we will not succeed. With persistent low productivity, we will lag behind our competitors.
Now is the time to embrace the ideas in the white paper to build a world-class, agile FE system.