The Skills Deceit: How stagnant policy thinking is holding the sector back

We can’t keep pretending the same old thinking is going to get FE out of the perennial challenges that it has only worsened

We can’t keep pretending the same old thinking is going to get FE out of the perennial challenges that it has only worsened

23 Jun 2024, 5:00

Matthew Syed recently wrote in the Times about the success of Nigel Farage being based on deceit. Not his, but that of politicians lying about the reality we all observe in every day life. 

It got me thinking about deceit in the world of skills. Working in the sector for three decades, it is hard not to be cynical and disillusioned. Apparently, politicians care about the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’, ladders of opportunity and the importance of upskilling and reskilling. But do they really?

I visit numerous colleges and providers. I see incredible commitment, amazing facilities and dedicated staff – but they can only do what they are (poorly) funded to do.

The real crisis I see isn’t opportunities for young people and adults to do degree-level learning or future green skills where there are no current jobs.

It is in sectors like care, early years and hospitality. It is in the transformation of skills needed for entry-level jobs. It is in our young people coming out of a policy-constrained and archaic school system without the personal skills valued by employers. 

And what has the policy response been to this crisis? Across governments, we have seen the decimation of the adult education budget and a raft of policies that are anti lower-level learning and anti-young people’s skills training. 

Who in their right mind would remove business admin level 2 at a time when the jobs at this level have become unrecognisable? What justifies the lowest funded apprenticeship provision in our two crisis sectors: care and early years?  What policy wonk thought demonising level 2 adult provision and slashing its funding was a good idea?

When Skills England is formed, are we really expecting it to bring about a seismic change? Or will it be stuffed full of the usual suspects, recreating the familiar quango with its familiar injunctions to form new skills strategies and to engage with employers?

How do we prevent it being just new initiatives and new acronyms? How do we mitigate the inevitable turbulence of change in qualifications and programmes that ultimately have no net effect on the ground? 

Are we really expecting a seismic change?

I have sat on skills boards for over 30 years. They are full of people who care, but it is the same old stuff. Short-term plans, projects and funding, verging on zero long-term sustainable impact, to tick funding boxes.

And we are told the problems are being resolved. This is the deceit.

And yet the solutions aren’t hard to find – or expensive.

When Labour free up £2 billion a year from the levy, let’s get it into the adult skills system. It is woefully underfunded and does exactly what Labour want: short, sharp, focused programmes giving employers and individuals the skills they need to enter and operate in the current workforce effectively. 

Bootcamps actually work. Yes, a few tweaks are needed (and Labour can rebrand them to make them their own if they wish), but let’s build on those principles. 

As an aside, how depressing it is to see graduates stuck in dead-end jobs having their prospects transformed by a 12-week bootcamp. HE fit for purpose? Perhaps that’s another deceit.

Degree apprenticeships will look after themselves. Apprenticeships policy should refocus and incentivise levels 2 and 3, and young people, which will re-engage SMEs.

Meanwhile, T Levels are great but they are an academic programme for university progression for a small proportion of students. Labour must press the big red stop (not pause) button on removing BTECs and the other vocational qualification reform that surrounds this misguided approach.

The vocational world is complex and evolves with the economy. It does not need a group of ‘experts’ who have never set foot in a provider or met an FE student to tell the sector what to do. 

Common sense is being drowned out by party-political platitudes. Meanwhile sector representative groups who will need to hold Labour’s feet to the fire after the election are already compromising.

We can do better. Let’s get some hard-core practical solutions in front of Labour now so they can hit the ground running and make an immediate and real difference.

Anything less is just deceiving ourselves.

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One comment

  1. Gemma Burt

    Mark Dawe talks huge sense – and can sense his frustration. And he has clearly tried to influence Ministers throughout his career so he knows how the ‘lobby game’ works. I can tell he’s angry with policy people – but policy people offer options to Ministers and it’s the Minister who decides the direction of travel. The only thing o disagree with Mark on is his garish choice of outfits!!