The Queen’s Speech is welcome – but passing legislation is only the first step

13 May 2021, 11:09

Following the Queen’s Speech, there are a number of issues to keep an eye on when the Skills Bill arrives, writes Aveek Bhattacharya

In one sense, not much has changed in terms of government FE and adult education policy as a result of the Queen’s speech.

Last July, in a speech to the Social Market Foundation, education secretary Gavin Williamson promised a “comprehensive plan to change the fundamentals of England’s further education landscape”.

Then in September, the prime minister announced a lifelong loan entitlement, offering every student four years’ financial support on equivalent terms to the university student loan system by 2025.

And in January, the government published its Skills for Jobs white paper which set out a raft of proposals. These included reforms to higher technical education to encourage greater provision and take up of level 4 and 5 courses, and Local Skills Improvement Plans to be drawn up by employers, FE colleges and other providers and local stakeholders.

This week’s announcement of a new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to be introduced in this parliament doesn’t tell us any more about those measures.

But it is significant – and welcome – nonetheless because it tells us that education and skills will be a legislative priority for the coming year.

For all the government’s fine ambitions on lifelong learning and vocational education, it wasn’t a given that it would make it onto this year’s parliamentary to-do list.

And it is no small thing that the government chose to focus on the Skills Bill in its briefings prior to the Queen’s Speech.

If you have any doubts, just ask the people still waiting for a plan for adult social care.  

Adult and further education’s moment in the political spotlight is long overdue.

Previous  SMF research has shown that funding for adult education (excluding apprenticeships) has nearly halved since 2009-10 whilst participation rates have suffered, falling by 49 per cent since 2004. 

It is estimated that £1.3 billion is required to reverse funding cuts since 2009-10. 

The devil, as ever, will be in the details.

January’s white paper is full of laudable ambitions: ending disparities between HE and FE, simplifying funding and making it more stable and predictable, creating more modular and flexible courses.

However, we are yet to see the specifics of how these are to be achieved. For those, we must wait a few more days until the draft Bill is published.

There are a number of issues to keep an eye on when we do know more.

Equally important is providing the necessary resources to return to or even exceed previous funding levels

First, what provisions is the government making for learners in the intervening four years until the Lifelong Loan Entitlement is fully up and running?

Structural change takes time, but as we attempt to rebuild economically from the pandemic, expanding opportunities for retraining can hardly wait for the Whitehall machine to spark into life.

Second, how effective are the measures in combining flexibility for learners and stability for providers?

Will all students and courses be able to benefit from modular, evening or home learning, or will some be prioritised?

We need to know whether the government can offer more financial security and reduce complexity in a way that allows and encourages institutions to invest in new types of courses.

Third, will the government produce collaboration or conflict between universities and colleges?

Our interviews with sector leaders highlighted a brewing “turf war” between the two over who should deliver the new higher technical qualifications that the government wants to see provided.

Given the interest learners have in a system with strong connections between universities and colleges that permits easy movement and sharing of knowledge and resources between the two, stoking tensions could have terrible consequences.

Passing legislation is only the first part of fulfilling the government’s ambitions on FE and adult education.

Equally – and perhaps more – important is providing the necessary resources to return to or even exceed previous funding levels.

On that front, we will have to wait a few more months until the spending review to get a full sense of the government’s intentions. But for now, it is a very promising start.  

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