FE Week was joined by Labour’s shadow minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning Toby Perkins on Monday for our latest webinar on the response to the coronavirus pandemic for the FE and skills sector.

Here were the main takeaway points.

Extend supplier relief support to levy-funded apprenticeships

The Labour Party believes the Education & Skills Funding Agency should extend its Covid-19 supplier relief to all apprenticeships, including those funded through the digital services that are currently barred from the financial support.

Perkins said the issue, which the Association of Employment and Learning Providers is challenging legally, needs to be implemented to “safeguard a tremendous amount of the sector”.

“I think it’s a position the government will ultimately be forced into, and the sooner they get on with it, the greater the reduction in casualties, either in terms of businesses and apprenticeships or in terms of job losses.”


A national skills response to coronavirus is needed

The shadow minister said it was important to attempt to predict the impact of the crisis on the economy and what the skills response to that should be. “I think that means there’s going to be a huge need for retraining.”

He claimed there are likely to be many people in the job market as a result, and proposes a major adult education and reskilling programme “to give people hope… To give people the skills that they need to adapt to the changing circumstances is absolutely crucial”.

Perkins went on to say he thinks the government needs to be giving “really serious thought to working collectively with the sector on the provision of all the alternatives that will enable us to build in a better-skilled future out of the current crisis”.


Colleges need additional funding for an expected increase in students

Perkins warned that if, due to the economic circumstances and furloughing of staff members, many companies decide not to go ahead with planned apprenticeships, colleges will be faced with a “massive increase in the number of full-time students”.

He is calling on the government to look at how colleges can be funded in the event they do find a surge in such learner numbers “to be able to provide that provision without hitting a cashflow crisis”.


Updating IT infrastructure would be ‘very valuable’

In response to Andrew Adonis’s controversial comments about education establishments not providing adequate online learning and support, Perkins said: “I think we all recognise that this is an incredibly difficult period of time and I think it’s important alongside any critiques to recognise the absolutely extraordinary steps that many teachers and lecturers are going to in order to provide both educational support and personal support to learners and to their families at this time.” He acknowledged that many in the sector were “dismayed” by Adonis’s comments, but added that Adonis may have heard alternative cases that have led him to believe that learners are being let down. If this is the case, these should be investigated.

The MP added there should be an assessment of what infrastructure is available to deliver remote learning. “I think there is always going to be a need to make sure you are investing in something that you are going to be able to continue to use going forward.”

He noted that there is representation to suggest that updating IT in the sector is “an overdue project anyway”, which would have both an immediate benefit plus longer-term benefits, “so I would absolutely support that.”


T-levels introduction may consume departmental attention

Last month the government said it is still committed to rolling out the first T-levels in September 2020, despite the pandemic. Perkins said his “biggest worry” with the plan is that the new qualifications are something that are going to affect a “tiny number of students in the first instance, but will consume a huge amount of departmental attention” and their ability to deal with “really pressing issues facing a far greater section of the sector”.

He admitted it is difficult to determine the impact from the outside but that, so long as they are in a position to address the other challenges, “I’ve no objection”.

Perkins added the other main obstacle with T-levels is the work-experience element. “That will be a substantial undertaking, I think, under any circumstances. To do it in the current climate is even more challenging, so there needs to be some flexibility around that sort of issue.


‘Huge concern’ over redundancies in the sector

Perkins said he is “very worried” about likely job losses in FE “on the back of nine or ten years of terrible economic allocation”. He is concerned that “if they were to see the sort of scale of cuts or deductions in income that I’m hearing, that there isn’t going to be enough in the system for them in some cases to even survive, but certainly to prevent really significant job losses in a sector that I just don’t feel can afford it”.

The shadow minister added that it must be ensured that the FE sector comes out of the crisis in a position to contribute to skills being at the “forefront of the national response” and with a workforce capable of achieving this.

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