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Blog 25 January 2021

Five challenges and opportunities in the government’s reforms to post-16 education

By Asi Panditharatna
Five key challenges and opportunities presented by the government's proposed reforms to post-16 technical education and training.

The government’s Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth White Paper is welcome. We hope it brings greater focus and investment to the post-16, further and adult education sectors.

The white paper highlights a number of key opportunities and challenges:

1. Level 3 qualifications

The Lifetime Skill Guarantee funding full Level 3 qualifications is welcome. The pandemic has led to higher levels of unemployment among people with qualifications below this level, who are often in unstable and poorly-paid work. To improve career pathways for these groups, lifelong learning, up-skilling and re-skilling should be incentivised: in 2019/20, 70% of apprenticeships starts were at Level 3 and higher, highlighting the need to up-skill. In future, the non-devolved adult education budget (AEB) must also fund Level 2 qualifications as a stepping stone to higher qualifications, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We welcome the review of post-16 qualifications at Level 3 and below in England.

2. Local Skill Improvement Plans

Local skills improvement plans (LSIP) must build on existing work being done by local enterprise partnerships and Combined Authorities. The existing arrangements in London, such as Skills for Londoners, have brought together the Greater London Authority, employers, colleges, AELP and Independent Training Providers (ITPs). However, allowing one partner such as the Chambers of Commerce to lead the LSIP process is contrary to this multi-agency approach. Let us not return to a situation where some apprenticeship trailblazer groups excluded education providers. Colleges and ITPs are also employers, have knowledge of labour market trends in their sectors, work with employers and deserve a seat at the table. For example, at Forward, we provide volunteering, job and apprenticeship opportunities to former clients and learners and have strong partnerships with key employers (including SMEs and social enterprises).

3. Progression into good-quality work

The White Paper is correct to state “that accountability will focus on outcomes, supporting a shift towards higher-value, employment-based provision”. Progression and destination outcomes are important and must focus on sustainable job roles, careers and apprenticeships. As a real living wage-accredited employer aligned to the Mayor of London’s Good Work Standard, Forward has successfully delivered contracts that were measured on placing unemployed clients into good-quality work. The DWP Re-start contracts also affirm this commitment to sustainable employment.

4. Career advice and social mobility

We agree with the statement in the White Paper “that clear and outcomes-focused careers information is fundamental to the success of our reforms”. Poorly incentivised payment by result models, along with the fragmented nature of careers advice, have had a negative impact on its quality. In our experience, learners we support have often not received prior career advice or information, advice and guidance. The White Paper also states that a “common set of employer-led standards to define the content of technical courses, qualifications, and apprenticeships brings several benefits and efficiencies”. However, in order improve social mobility and increase social capital, education must go beyond the workplace, encouraging active citizenship and social justice through voting, social action, and involvement in civil society.

5. Market expansion

The future investment opportunities highlighted in the White Paper are welcome reading for ITPs that have struggled during the pandemic. The forthcoming non-devolved AEB with the National Skills Fund could be an important opportunity, but early indications are that fewer providers will be funded. The ESFA has also indicated that the register of apprenticeship training providers will be refreshed again in 2021 to consolidate the marketplace. And with current chosen T Level providers predominately colleges, it is not entirely clear whether the investment opportunities outlined in the White Paper will benefit ITPs, SMEs and charities.

Asi Panditharatna is the Divisional Director for The Forward Trust’s Employment Services

Forward’s Employment Services deliver information, advice and guidance (IAG) services, vocational training, employability, enterprise and apprenticeships. We also support and develop social enterprises. In 2020 we were awarded the Matrix Standard for IAG services and were a commended finalist in the ERSA Employability Awards