Two significant skills bill amendments need to be backed by government

Report stage gets underway in the Commons on Monday

Report stage gets underway in the Commons on Monday

19 Feb 2022, 6:00

Skills, skills, skills is the right focus – and with two modest additions, we can achieve much more, writes David Hughes

There can hardly be a better time for the government to be pushing a skills bill through parliament, with employers in every sector across the whole country reporting difficulties in recruiting skilled people. We have the tightest labour market for a very long time, with the lowest recorded ratio of unemployed people to job vacancies. It stands at 1.1 people to every vacancy now, having been as high as five people after the 2008 credit crunch.

Skills is also a fundamental part of the levelling up agenda, with the recent white paper showing that many people are trapped in a cycle of low-skilled, often precarious work, with limited opportunity for progression. There are wider long-term challenges as well – from digitisation and AI, to climate change to an ageing population – that will compound these challenges, and introduce new skills needs right across the labour market. A report from the CBI last year, ‘learning for life: funding world class adult education’ found that as many as nine in ten people will need to reskill by 2030 as a result of these challenges – that means a skills revolution in lifelong learning, and one that needs to happen quickly.

Unfortunately, against that backdrop, participation in adult education in England has fallen, in line with reduced funding, from 4.4 million in 2003/04 to 1.5 million in 2019/20, with those more disadvantaged least likely to take part. This is of course why the government is right to be focussing so centrally on “skills, skills, skills” – and it’s something that is to be wholeheartedly commended.

The post-16 education and skills bill returns to the House of Commons this coming Monday for report stage following a passage of lively debates in both houses. Overall, there is a lot to support, but like most bills, amendments are needed to improve the impact it will have. At this stage there are two significant amendments, both tabled by Tory MPs, which make a lot of sense, but bafflingly seem to be opposed by the government. The first comes from Robert Halfon MP on advice to children about their options, the second from Peter Aldous MP on reviewing whether rules about universal credit get in the way of people getting the skills they need to find jobs.  

Robert Halfon’s amendment modestly asks that every child is able to hear about all of the options open to them post-16. That includes the new flagship T Levels, apprenticeships, A-levels and other technical and vocational qualifications. It’s not a lot to ask, that children get to interact three times with the colleges and training providers offering the range of options open to them. Why would anyone want to deny that happening? It would mean more children and young people might follow the path that best suits them, rather than denying them an understanding of those option.

Peter Aldous’s amendment asks for a review of the universal credit rules to ensure they are not a barrier to people getting the skills they need to find work. With such a tight labour market, the big target for DWP should be to support and train people who are long term sick and long term unemployed. Their needs will often be for new or refreshed skills, building their confidence to get back into work. A review would be able to build on the important progress that has been made through skills bootcamps, and the announcement of new pathfinders in the levelling up white paper.  

These are two simple and modest amendments, that would build on the ambitions of the skills bill and could have real impact. I hope that MPs from all sides of the house will be supporting both. And I fail to see any reason that they won’t be supported by government too, and embedded into the reforms. I certainly hope they are, and I know that all of us working in education and training and who support these ambitions, will be watching closely.

Skills and access to lifelong learning has rightly been recognised as a vital way to level-up the country, and to meet the challenges of the future.

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