The FE white paper has galvanised support for the sector

21 Jan 2022, 6:00

The government still needs a national strategy but there are positive signs, writes David Hughes

A year on from the publication of the Skills For jobs white paper is a good time to reflect on any progress made since.

At the time, I was one of many who welcomed the white paper because it affirmed the central place that skills and colleges had achieved in the government’s plans for recovery from the Covid pandemic and for the long-term success of the nation.

A year later, with the pandemic still having a major impact on life and work and with a new education secretary, it is heartening to see that central place maintained, and indeed built upon over the year.

The skills bill has been a key focus for parliamentarians over the course of the year, with many more senior MPs and peers now informed advocates for the sector.  

The chancellor’s autumn spending review also gave skills a prominent place – strongly in the rhetoric, perhaps less so in the substance for adults, but very much so for young people. This was one of the key ‘wins’.

The white paper specifically set out to achieve three things.

First, a new system of lifelong learning, which works for everyone. Second, a more empowered and collaborative skills system, freed up to meet needs, not controlled from Whitehall. And third, a more strategic relationship between providers and employers.

Unsurprisingly, it is too early to judge whether these will be fully achieved. But there are positive signs.

Colleges are working together in many areas of the country, with government funding, to agree higher level skills priorities. They are collaborating on stimulating demand and helping create a more joined-up offer to communities and to employers.

Meanwhile, employer organisations are developing the first local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) in partnership with colleges, working hard to engage employers and assess needs.

Put together, these changes could lead to a clear, strategic and pivotal role for colleges in local economic development, business innovation and skills delivery.

I say “could” because it is early days and there are risks. It would be a disaster, for instance, if an LSIP was simply presented to colleges as a wish list of skills and qualifications demanded by employers – we know that will not work.

The promise of a simpler system for funding and accountability is a critical element of this reform but perhaps the most difficult to achieve in a complex sector.

Other major challenges include getting the balance right between immediate skills issues and the longer term, and recruitment difficulties about pay and conditions versus those driven by skills shortages.

There are, of course, gaps in the reforms that we have been highlighting all year, not least through parliamentary debates on the skills bill.

We want to see an overarching national strategy for skills. This would help set the framework for policy, including LSIPs. We also want to see funding which supports national priorities, and which holds the government to account for its skills policies.

A second key gap is how we ensure that education and training is a realistic option for everyone. That means better student maintenance at lower levels and more freedom for people on universal credit to access courses.

I remain optimistic about the direction of travel

The third and most worrying gap, though, is that the white paper has focused mostly on level 3 and above, at the expense of the rest of the system, overlooking people who need basic literary, numeracy, ESOL and digital skills as well as levels 1 and 2.

We have seen the funding for this plummet over the past decade.

I remain optimistic about the direction of travel and have witnessed across the year how Department for Education officials as well as ministers have endeavoured to involve college leaders in the reform discussions. Long may it last.

But more than anything, we need to use our moment in the spotlight to keep winning over more advocates and supporters.

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