The skills white paper: too much rhetoric, too little action

21 Jan 2022, 6:00

A lack of movement is causing planning blight and eroding the skills landscape, writes Sue Pember

In January 2021, the long-awaited white paper setting out the government’s vision for reform of further education arrived. Along with it came a timetable for how the act would journey through parliament, starting in the Lords. 

I wonder whether it was ever imagined by those directing the work of parliament that the Lords would relish the chance to talk about this bill in the way they did.

It was heartening to hear the lords and baronesses speak so knowledgeably and at length about the importance of lifelong learning, skills, apprenticeships and adult education. 

Their ability to offer amendments was outstanding and relentless – they were determined to get us much out of this bill as they could. 

We have yet to see what will stick, but in a way they have already done us all a great favour by raising issues the sector has long been trying to highlight. Mainly that the lifelong learning agenda is really important to this country in improving both productivity and wellbeing.

The main purpose of the white paper was to introduce a lifetime skills guarantee intended to enable people to gain the skills they need throughout their lives.

This guarantee looks like it will just turn into access to a loan for fees for level 4 and above and, we assume, a secondary loan for maintenance. 

If it is as described, giving loans for modules and not just for full years, then it could open up the HE market to more students and be an exciting development.

But, one year on, I would have expected some movement on its introduction. Back in April 2021 we were told by the higher education minister that pilots would start in 2022; however, as yet there has a been little progress.

The white paper also set out plans to introduce local skills improvement plans (LSIPs), which will require colleges to work closely with employers in identifying local skills needs, and places greater emphasis on provider accountability for outcomes achieved. 

There have been some pilots of LSIPs, but lots of teething problems too, with not all key players, such as local authorities, combined authorities and other key providers, around the table.

This was a lost opportunity and another year has gone by without achieving some really necessary local coordination.

Another year has gone by without really necessary local coordination

The focus on colleges in the white paper did also worry adult community education services and institutions. But these concerns were alleviated somewhat when the consultation document was published in July. 

The consultation document clearly set out a role for adult community education services: “Grant funding of colleges and local authority education providers will be the main funding flow in our new system for adult skills.

“Alongside colleges, local authority adult educational services play a key role in meeting learner needs and supporting their communities, typically focusing on community learning and basic skills provision.”

With this statement, it was easier to envisage a future with adult education below level 2 being planned and coordinated by local authorities.

This leaves the higher-level courses to be covered in the new LSIPs. This is something we have been advocating at HOLEX,  as we know learners prefer to learn close to where they live. Planning locally is the sensible option and allows place-based services to join up.

But going forward we need more assurances about the future.

We need progress on the three-year budgets and simplification promises that were proposed in the white paper consultation. And we need to see the response to supplementary consultations on areas such as level 2 and below. 

This lack of information is causing a planning blight, eroding the skills landscape and reducing learner opportunity.

Next year, let’s up the pace. We must put in place a system that allows our learners to progress with equal financial support, whichever route they choose.

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