The Skills Bill: inadequate to deal with years of neglect and a pandemic

21 May 2021, 9:30

This Skills Bill reveals an approach that remains inadequate to tackle the scale of the skills challenges we face post-Covid, writes Toby Perkins

After a decade of funding cuts and neglect of further education, the sector has understandably welcomed the government’s new-found interest.

But the much-heralded Skills Bill contains less than meets the eye, and we fear it will fail to meet the scale of the challenge that years of neglect and the impact of the pandemic have caused. 

While this Bill was not expected to solve all funding challenges, the government is failing to even recognise the role their spending cuts have played in the decline of further education.

The Conservatives have overseen a sharp fall in apprentice numbers since the introduction of their apprenticeship levy, at the same time as claiming to be the party of small business and excluding those very businesses from the levy.

The sector is understandably sceptical when it comes to big new promises. 

The heady claims that this was a government that believed in localism and devolution of power are clearly consigned to the history books. This Bill contains a Department for Education power-grab with little expectation of a role for metro mayors and confusion around the role of shire authorities in setting skills priorities.

Nor does there appear to be any enthusiasm for Local Enterprise Partnerships to play a central role in bringing together the needs of businesses and educators.

Many smaller colleges will also be looking nervously at the government’s expressed right to merge colleges without recourse to local circumstances or consultation. 

I have never heard anybody suggest that a more hands-on role for Gavin Williamson was needed

In the many hundreds of meetings I have held during my year in this post, I confess I have never heard anybody suggest that a more hands-on role for Gavin Williamson was needed for ensuring Britain is equipped with a well skilled workforce.

Yet here, the education secretary awards himself new powers to intervene in ‘failing’ colleges, to merge or replace colleges, to select or to sack ‘employer representative’ bodies, and to dictate whether colleges are fulfilling the requirements these bodies lay down. 

This is a government that has consistently created oblique structures and been surprised when they fail to deliver, yet there is again very little evidence of a robust, systematic approach to underpin the government’s desire for employers to take the lead in skills reforms.

Poorly defined local skills plans risk shutting out metro mayors and combined authorities, many of which have democratic accountability for local skills and economic regeneration. 

Given the continued decline in apprenticeship numbers, and unspent levy funds, supporting businesses to utilise more of that pot and spend the money as intended on boosting skills should be a key priority for this government.

Yet again there is inaction. Silence in the face of Labour’s call for a wage subsidy policy which could have created 85,000 new apprenticeships for young people last year, giving them their first step on the ladder. 

There are measures here that we welcome – the moves to create learning accounts and expand learning entitlements are both positive steps.

However, even here there are gaps, the lack of support for living costs risks closing the door to potential learners, in contrast to the Labour-led Welsh government’s Education Maintenance Allowance, which supports young students to invest in themselves. 

The government’s proudest boast in this Bill seems to be a reversal of their own move in 2013 to scrap the right for adults to study a level 3 qualification.

Yet the renewed commitment is more limited than what existed before, and crucially won’t allow someone qualified to level 3 in one field to receive funding to retrain in another, which, given the needs of the post-Covid world, is a remarkable failure.

Its introduction in 2024 is also disappointingly slow. 

It is also concerning that supported internships, which can play a huge role in supporting learners with learning difficulties to prepare for and enter the world of work, are missing from the Bill. We would like to see them specified as an intrinsic part of local skills plans.

This Bill is itself an acknowledgement of this government’s 11 years of failure on FE policy and funding. Many measures, such as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, are undoing previous mistakes or going over old ground to finally deliver promises such as employer-led skills.

Yet at a time when the need for the sector has never been greater, the over-riding first impression is one of a government seizing powers for itself, to introduce policies dictated from an out-of-touch Conservative government in Whitehall, instead of a genuine partnership of local learners, elected officials, providers and employers.

This amounts to a huge, missed opportunity and an approach that remains inadequate to tackle the scale of the skills challenges we face post-Covid.


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