The Department for Education’s novel Unit for Future Skills has been “useful to a point”, sector leaders have told FE Week, after it was revealed the group has cost over £2.5 million in its first 15 months.
Set up by DfE in May 2022, the Unit for Future Skills (UFS) is an analytical and research unit, whose main priority this year was to deliver two skills dashboards on careers pathways and skills demand, showing available jobs in each area of England based on skills needs.
It was the replacement for the Skills and Productivity Board, which brought together FE experts into a committee providing independent, evidence-based advice to DfE.
The DfE revealed it spent £2,569,794 on the unit between its inception and August 2023, in answer to a parliamentary question from Labour’s new shadow skills minister Seema Malhotra who appears keen to find out whether the unit is offering value for money.
The unit, chaired by the UK Statistics Authority’s national statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond, has around 20 people in its team who are mostly analysts. The unit also commissions external work by researchers and data experts. DfE said most of the costs incurred are for staff salaries.
“That’s a reasonable amount of money for the number of people and work involved,” said Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning Work Institute.
“I think the question is whether that is the right number of people and if they’re making a difference to the skills system, that will determine the value for money.”
He explained that so far, the main outputs of the unit “seem to be a number of data dashboards on local labour markets and job projections”.
“A question for me is how valuable local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) have found these, how widely are they being used, and also how they add value to previous efforts,” he added.
Main users of the UFS’ dashboards included colleges and employers developing local skills and improvement plans, some of whom have criticised that the rollout wasn’t in tandem with the LSIP time scale, making it difficult to fully utilise the information provided.
“The only teething issue was that some information came out at different points so it seemed like it was being developed along the same time frame as the LSIP time frame so we couldn’t fully utilise all the information it contained,” a spokesperson for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire chambers of commerce, which led on its area’s LSIP, told FE Week.
“The dashboard was being consistently updated through the LSIP process and if it continues down that path then will likely continue to be a useful resource.”
The spokesperson added that the dashboards were “useful to a point” as they collated data usually found across different websites and databases and allowed them to “localise it to some extent”.
Others said the development of the LSIP involved rigorous local research which went “beyond the current capability” of the UFS.
A spokesperson from Devon and Plymouth Chamber of Commerce said: “As part of the DfE LSIP funding we undertook rigorous, local research that went into specific detail beyond the current capability of the UFS.
“We understand that UFS is still in development, and we have provided our feedback as requested through the appropriate channels.”
Out of all 38 published LSIPs in England, 13 mentioned the UFS as a data source in their plans.
The unit has already made the careers pathways dashboard live, which shows the education pathways into industry and gives statistics on qualification and subject area outcomes. It is planning to update the dashboard later this year to link the pathways to job occupations for learners.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The Unit for Future Skills is meeting its priorities and providing value for money, helping to build a skills system that is employer-focused, high quality and fit for the future.
“This includes producing resources to help learners see which higher and further education courses will best help them reach their career goals, working with the ONS to develop a new source of job vacancy information that will provide colleges and learners with precise information on local job demand, and working closely with employer bodies to support their local skills improvement plans.”