The skills bill’s ambition cannot become reality without colleges

28 Apr 2022, 14:27

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Royal assent for the bill moves the country closer to an employer-led skills system, but it can’t happen without providers on the ground, writes Alex Burghart

Never in my lifetime have I known an economy so hungry for skills. There are 1.3 million vacancies out there. This is for many reasons, but the obvious ones are growth, Brexit and Covid.

Our ability to fill these roles and nurture high quality skills within our country will be central to our prosperity. This has always been true, but in the past few years it has become particularly true again.

In the six months since I became the minister for skills, I have seen employers who for years have been able to depend on the import of cheap, pre-trained foreign labour becoming actively interested in our country’s skills agenda.

I welcome this, because I want employers to be at the very heart of our skills system.

The skills and post-16 education bill becoming law marks a major milestone in making sure we have a system that is driven by what employers need.

We need employers’ voices to be heard throughout the system – especially when setting the standards for qualifications, and when offering courses.

The process is well under way now.

Since 2017, we have had a reformed apprenticeship system so that each of the 640 standards available reflect the needs of employers.

I have seen employers become actively interested in our skills system

It helps employers achieve their goals and provides apprentices assurances that they are learning skills that will allow them to compete in the labour market.

Since then, we have introduced a new gold-standard in technical qualifications at 16 to 19: T Levels.

They are based on the same standards as apprenticeships, and include nine weeks of on the job work experience – making sure students learn on the job, for the job.

And our new Institutes of Technology (IoTs) are bringing together colleges, universities, employers from Siemens to Fujitsu to the NHS.

IoTs are going to be the pinnacle of technical education, giving local people advanced skills.

Alongside this, we need a skills system that’s responsive to local need and that means making sure employers have access to the skills they need in the places they need them.

To do so, we are handing employers responsibility for setting local skills priorities.

In the next few months, we will designate employer representative bodies (ERBs) across England who will be charged with identifying those needs.

Our eight trailblazer ERBs have told me that, for the first time, employers in their area know exactly who to call when they have skills needs.

Using that intelligence, ERBs will work with employers, providers and stakeholders to produce local skills improvement plans to nudge local learning in the right direction.

This could help the next giga-factory, the next offshore wind farm, the next nuclear plant, the next electric vehicle factory, to find the workers with the skills they need.

It can help the retrofitters, the digital networkers and the constructors of HS2, all get the skills our green revolution needs.

Local skills improvement plans will help areas harness the talents of their people to build the infrastructure of tomorrow, to build the homes of tomorrow, led by employers, supported by government and driven forward by our excellent further education colleges and other providers.

None of our ambitions, however, can be turned into reality without colleges.

Last autumn saw the best funding settlement for over a decade. An additional £3.8 billion by the end of the parliament is a cash increase of about 42 per cent.

In this financial year, that’s £615 million extra for 16-19 education, which is going to lift funding rates and give 40 more hours per student.

And, in a few years’ time the lifelong loan entitlement, will make it possible for people to invest in their own future by drawing down on up to four years of post-18 funding to be used across higher or further education as they need.

This will help people develop the higher technical skills which we’ve for so long lacked in this country.

Increasingly, we are finding ways of helping people to skill up, move up, earn up. And in turn, we are charting a new path toward prosperity. 

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