"Skills for jobs" white paper gives businesses central role in technical education

New government proposals on lifelong learning and further education will shift the focus onto vocational courses. 

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has unveiled the government’s Skills for Jobs white paper, billed as an overhaul of technical education and the provision of “lifelong learning”. 

According to the document, published yesterday, Chambers of Commerce and business groups will be given significant influence over developing skills training courses alongside further education colleges in order to meet the demands of local employers. The aim is to encourage the expansion of technical and vocational education, curbing the focus on traditional academic routes that has been prevalent in recent years.

In July last year, Williamson announced that the commitment to ensure that 50 per cent of school leavers go to university, a target set by Tony Blair over two decades ago, would be scrapped just one year after it was first achieved. The proposals also detail a significant expansion of lifelong learning, designed to help older workers retrain in new industries and professions. 

Introducing the report, Williamson said that “too many people – and too many employers – wrongly [believe] that studying for a degree at university is the only worthwhile marker of success. Although our universities are world-class, it is not the only choice: in many cases, a college course or apprenticeship can offer better outcomes.”  

Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, has spoken repeatedly on how the so-called “skills gap” acts as a drag on productivity and growth. Many employers report difficulties in attracting qualified candidates for certain roles, as well as a worrying lack of basic numeracy and literacy skills that hampers output. Writing in the Financial Times in 2019, Haldane has said that the current model based on “developing academic skills in young people” had been broadly successful, but that “tomorrow’s model [would] need to educate a broader generational spectrum across a wider range of skills, from cognitive, to vocational, to interpersonal”.

With this white paper, the government’s aim is to boost the uptake of technical qualifications and have employers playing a central role in creating nearly all technical courses by 2030. Some £1.5bn of capital funding will be provided by the Department for Education to improve the condition of further education colleges, £291m will be provided in support for 16-19-year-olds in further education, and £375m will be dedicated to the delivery of the Plan for Jobs, a scheme announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to support employment through the pandemic, through measures including the Job Retention Bonus and skills training.

Despite these additional funding pledges, the introduction of a loan scheme for vocational education courses has been delayed until 2025.

The government’s new-found enthusiasm for technical education and further education colleges belies a funding deficit in the sector that has been exacerbated since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies published in November last year revealed that per-student funding in further education and sixth form colleges fell by 12 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2019-20, the largest fall in funding for any part of the education system. 

Though the white paper was broadly welcomed by the further education sector, some pointed out the need for the proposals to be backed by long-term investment. “The government is right to focus on vocational education and learning and this white paper contains many sensible measures,” said Stephen Evans, the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute. “However, for the reality to match the rhetoric we need significant and sustained increases in investment after a decade of cuts that have left millions fewer adults taking part in learning.”

National Union of Students vice-president for further education Salsabil Elmegri said that availability of maintenance funding and grants for learning would be key in allowing people to retrain and upskill, and pointed out that, while the paper gives employers a central role, it overlooks students: “It is disappointing that the government has chosen to put employers right at the centre of this plan but has found no place for those most integral to our education system – the students themselves. Student voice is essential for creating an education system that works for all, and this is a missed opportunity to promote that.”

Jonny Ball is a Special Projects Writer for Spotlight and the New Statesman

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