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Hitting the ground running: The first 100 days
Hitting the ground running: The first 100 days

Archive for the ‘Education & Skills’ Category

From crisis to opportunity – the Education inheritance for a Labour government

As the Labour Party gathers in Liverpool next week, flush from a big by-election win and sitting on a healthy 20-point lead in the polls, attention will turn to what Labour will say about how it is going to govern. 

For any incoming government, a major priority area will always be the education system. Education and Skills is central to Keir Starmer’s five missions and is one of the most prominent parts of the National Policy Forum report that will set the framework for the Labour manifesto. 

The reality is though, that from early years through to university and beyond, the sector is facing systemic challenges. Whether it is the difficulties in the recruitment and retention of teachers; the failings of the apprenticeship system; the rising funding pressure pushing some universities to the brink of failure; the spike in pupil referrals; or school buildings crumbling. There are crises to be dealt with everywhere.  

To discuss the legacy that Labour will be left with and what they can do to ensure that the education system is fit for purpose, I was delighted to welcome senior representatives from an array of organisations across the education sector to a roundtable discussion on what an incoming Labour government could do to break down the barriers of opportunity. 

While the demands and challenges from each part of the sector are considerable, some of the key things to watch out for that came from that informative discussion are as follows: 

The last time a Labour government was elected, its central mantra was ‘Education, Education, Education’, and the Blair and Brown years saw the Labour government take bold decisions and heavily invest in education at all levels, trying to make good on this mantra.  

Starmer’s Labour will not be in as fortunate a position this time and will need to make choices on where they can spend limited money and think creatively about how to use the resources they do have in a different way. 

For those organisations businesses and institutions looking to ensure that their particular part of the sector gets the attention and resource it needs, then you need to be able to make a strong coherent case, showing how you can make effective uses of resources and deliver opportunities for all.  

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In Conversation with Toby Perkins MP – Unlocking opportunities to ‘earn while you learn’

Last week, WA Communications hosted a roundtable with Toby Perkins MP, Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, to discuss Labour’s approach to skills and lifelong learning, with a particular focus on the party’s views on degree apprenticeships. Bringing together key players within the HE, apprenticeships, and skills sectors, the discussion highlighted the potential of degree apprenticeships​ for learners, industry, and the economy.  

Perkins shed light on Labour’s current thinking around the skills agenda, confirming the party’s support for degree apprenticeships, advocating for FE and HE to “work hand in hand”, and calling for more investment in skills. However, he also stressed that spending the current levy funding should be the priority. 

At the event, WA Associate Director, Lorna Jane Russell previewed WA’s latest education research report on degree apprenticeships, presenting the findings from original consumer polling and setting out the challenges – and potential solutions – to expanding these qualifications throughout the UK. We will launch these publicly next week. 

Key Insights from the Roundtable:  

1. Degree apprenticeships have the potential to be a valuable opportunity for policy in lifelong learning, especially in the context of increasing education costs and the skills shortage. However, they are still not widely available, and there is a lack of awareness about them among the public. There is also a perception gap about the prestige of degree apprenticeships, which may deter potential applicants. 

2. To increase access and participation in degree apprenticeships, there is a need for new models that can widen participation and increase access to industry placements, especially for disadvantaged students who are currently underrepresented within the sector. This should be coupled with initiatives to support young learners in making the transition from school into work, including greater support throughout the qualification.  

3. The government has adopted an employer-led approach to degree apprenticeships, which means less investment and fewer opportunities for students. This approach may also limit the development of new models that prioritise access and participation, rather than just meeting the needs of employers.  

4. Universities and skills providers alike want to see more flexibility and fewer regulatory burdens in order to widen their degree apprenticeship offerings. Employer investment in skills is also down, and the apprenticeship levy needs reforming to be more flexible and help SMEs attract apprentices.  

5. Finally, there is also a need for investment in upskilling the existing workforce to deliver future jobs in decarbonisation and technology. Degree apprenticeships could play a role in this upskilling effort by providing a pathway for workers to gain new skills while also earning a degree and gaining work experience. 

 So, what’s the upshot for the skills sector?  

The cross-party consensus about the need to invest in skills training and degree apprenticeships favours skills providers, though universities that work with employers to offer degree apprenticeship qualifications will benefit. 

Labour’s promise of flexibility in their approach to the apprenticeship levy presents significant opportunities for skills providers to expand their degree apprenticeship offerings, and for universities to access a new funding stream. 

However, higher education could lose out to FE and apprenticeship providers in post-18 education reforms, so they will need to demonstrate how they can work alongside skills providers and local FE colleges to play a critical role in delivering on the reskilling agenda. 

While for policymakers, degree apprenticeships have the potential to be a valuable opportunity for lifelong learning and addressing the skills shortage, more needs to be done to increase access and participation, support new models, and revise funding and regulatory frameworks to support students to ‘earn while they learn’.  

 

If you have any questions or are interested in learning more about WA’s education team, please contact Lorna Jane Russell, WA Communications, at lornarussell@wacomms.co.uk

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How should the Government best plug the skills gap?

At the start of National Apprenticeship Week, WA Associate Director Lorna Jane Russell explores whether degree apprenticeships are the solution to tackling the skills gap

One of the most significant challenges facing the country today is the need to build our future economy and ensure that our workers have the right skills required to support the jobs of the future.

However, at present the outlook looks uncertain; the UK has a serious skills gap. Put simply, this means there is a mismatch between the skills needed to do a particular job and the skills that are available in the workforce.

A skills revolution is required to address this.

In recent years there has been a heightened awareness of the need for graduates to have a diverse range of skills – something that is recognised by policymakers and employers alike.

Indeed, investment in skills and apprenticeships has become a clear Government priority. Skills Minister Robert Halfon has long championed apprenticeships and believes that investment in skills is the best route for the Government to take to create economic growth and productivity, while Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is a former apprentice herself and is committed to boosting the lifelong learning agenda.

As the Government looks to rebalance the funding and focus of post-18 education, publishing the long-awaited Higher Education Bill and taking forward the recommendations from the Augar Review, we expect it to prioritise and expand funding and support for apprenticeships.

Within this context, we hope to see a significant boost for degree apprenticeships as we believe that these could make a real difference to plugging the skills gap and meeting the future needs of both learners and employers.

Significantly:

Since they were launched in 2015-16, degree apprenticeships have risen in considerable popularity, while traditional university student numbers are starting to fall. Yet, despite growing interest in these types of degrees, there is clear potential to expand them further across the UK.

This National Apprenticeship Week, and ahead of the introduction of the Higher Education Bill, we hope to see the Government set out a roadmap for the expansion of degree apprenticeships – both by investing more resources in them and by working more closely with employers and post-18 education and skills providers to provide more placements and courses.

At WA, we’ll be watching for announcements closely, making sure we are one step ahead of the next developments on the horizon and supporting universities, skills providers, and large employers alike to make the most of the opportunity to expand their own offerings.

Watch this space as we launch our own research next month to take a much deeper dive to explore the potential of these qualifications to transform the country’s skills base. If this sounds of interest, we’d love to chat.

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A lifelong commitment? What to expect from the Lifetime Skills Guarantee

Skills are a key part of the government’s agenda, seen as vital for unlocking its ‘Levelling Up’ commitments in the light of skills shortages in areas like engineering, IT, and accounting. These shortages are long-standing. A 2018 study by the Open University found that skills shortages were costing UK companies £6.3 billion a year due to factors such as training and additional recruitment costs.

The government has acknowledged these shortages, and the need to ensure the education and training system is able to cope with the ever-increasing demands placed on it. In a foreword to the January 2021 White Paper on skills, the then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson indicated that more opportunities for training needed to be made available. As part of its response, the government has introduced a new policy – the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. It hopes that this initiative will address changing skills needs and employment patterns by giving people the opportunity to train and retrain throughout their lives.

What is it?

The Prime Minister announced the Lifetime Skills Guarantee in a September 2020 speech. The scheme covers a lot of ground policy ground. Pledges include increasing investment in FE colleges, introducing a lifelong loan entitlement, and a new funding system for higher technical courses. Only two policies, however, are being funded by the National Skills Fund: a new Level 3 qualification offer for adults and the extension of digital skills bootcamps.

The qualification offer, which commenced in April 2021, aims to give all adults without a Level 3 qualification (equivalent to A level) access to a fully-funded course. Previously, only adults under the age of 24 could access funding. The courses are taught by a range of state and private providers.

The government maintains a list of eligible courses, with 379 currently listed, and has made digital, engineering, health, and construction qualifications a clear priority with 37, 51, 54, and 66 courses available respectively. Whilst course lists are subject to review, investors in training providers that deliver these courses are likely to be particular beneficiaries of the scheme.

A high priority, and a long-term solution for a long-term problem

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee tackles big challenges, and the government has devoted significant effort to implementing it. The Guarantee was referenced multiple times in last month’s Budget, which also included a wider commitment to increase spending on skills by £3.8 billion by 2024/25 – a cash increase of 42% compared to 2019/20. These are not small pledges. The government has expended serious political capital on addressing the problem of skills shortages and, given this emphasis, is likely to release further funds in future years to support the scheme.

Announcing the Guarantee, the Prime Minister also made clear that the initiative is intended as a long-term scheme, rather than a short-term remedy to fill immediate skills gaps – that the nature of learning demands time and resources. He suggested that other countries have had an advantage over the UK when it comes to skills and technical education “for 100 years”. Indeed, the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill confirmed that the planned rollout of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, another major Guarantee commitment and one that aims to make it just as easy to secure loans for higher technical qualifications as for full-time degrees, remains over three years away in 2025.

Considering the CBI’s October 2020 analysis that predicted around 90% of employees would need to reskill by 2030, if the government is serious about this issue– and all indications suggest it is – then funding for initiatives like the Level 3 offer is likely to be enduring. The fact that only £375 million from the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund has been allocated for 2021/22 reinforces this. There are an estimated 11 million people who would be able to access the free qualifications under the Level 3 offer. Given the political weight the government has placed on these Level 3 offers – literally labelling them a ‘Lifetime Guarantee’ – the £95 million that is currently funding courses over 2021/22 is very likely to represent a prelude to further funding in the future.

The outlook for investors

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee is a key piece of the government’s education agenda. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been personally involved in its roll-out and have alluded to long-term planning happening in this space. This suggests that scheme will benefit from ongoing investment, particularly in sectors which government has identified as priorities. Technicians, engineers and social care professionals are consistently namechecked by ministers as occupations that the country lacks, and current course lists reflect this. Providers with speciality in these areas look set to benefit from the increased demand that funding from the scheme is likely to stimulate. As a result, investors in the technical education sector will want to monitor the government’s developing thinking closely in order to identify potential opportunities from future funding allocations for the scheme.

 

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Educating through change: what are the opportunities and challenges facing the education sector?

Earlier this week we were delighted to host a high-level seminar with Robert Halfon MP and leaders from the education sector, where we discussed the priorities of the Education Select Committee and the challenges facing the education sector more broadly.

After what has been a turbulent few months, we at WA have also been reflecting on the education agenda and the opportunities and challenges facing education providers as we head into a new year.

The government is ramping up its focus on education and skills

At the outset, one of this government’s key priorities has been on tackling regional inequalities through its levelling up agenda. Investment in education and skills must underpin this as the government seeks to widen opportunity, improve social mobility and meet people’s aspirations for better lives. And indeed, this was the rationale behind the creation of the National Skills Fund.

Over the last few months the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the need to invest in training and skills around the country. With unemployment rates rising and the nature of work changing, more needs to be done to upskill the country’s workforce and set the economy on its path to recovery.

The government recognises this and the Chancellor set out his Plan for Jobs in the summer, which included a £2 billion Kickstart Scheme to help open up new jobs for 16-24-year-olds who are at risk of long-term unemployment, as well as measures to provide bonuses for employees who hire trainees and apprentices. Skills and retraining will also be a key focus of the Spending Review later this month too.

Investment is going into closing the inequality gap

Another consequence of the pandemic is that it thrust education to the top of the political agenda in a way that had not been anticipated, as education settings closed their doors for all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable learners for several months. Parents suddenly had to make emergency childcare provisions and young people faced uncertainty about their future learning opportunities.

This laid bare the inequalities that exist around the country, which have a serious impact on the educational attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign highlighted this well, and led to a high-profile government U-turn, while ministers also introduced a £1 billion Covid-19 catch up premium to support children in making up for lost learning.

Where are the opportunities for education providers?

The government will need to work closely with providers – private, charitable, and public – in driving forwards this agenda. What are the opportunities for them?

First, the government’s focus on upskilling presents several opportunities for skills, training and apprenticeship providers to help the workforce to meet the country’s skills needs. Notably, there is funding available for providers through the National Skills Fund, Kickstart Scheme and Lifetime Skills Guarantee initiative, alongside the anticipated boost for further and technical education that is likely to be announced in the forthcoming FE White Paper and government response to the Augar Review.

Next, the £1 billion Covid-19 catch up premium package will allow organisations sector to partner with schools to deliver real support for pupils. The official guidance on how to spend the funding was left deliberately vague to give schools flexibility on how best to focus the support in their own settings, and as a result there are opportunities for a wide range of educational providers. This includes providers able to deliver targeted tuition, intervention programmes, summer support programmes, access to technology, and support for parents and carers.

Lastly, the increased focus on young people’s mental health, from school children through to university students, presents an opportunity for mental health services, providers and charities to work with education settings to make a difference to young people’s wellbeing.

What this means for the education providers and what they should do about it

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Far enough on Further Education?

On the back of the Prime Minister’s announcement to create a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Cameron Wall considers what this tells us about the Government’s strategic plans for Further Education and how the sector could respond.

Words into action

A cornerstone of the Prime Minister’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda, has been one of bold commitments on further education and skills. Covid and rising unemployment is putting even more pressure on Number 10 to ensure the UK’s workforce is equipped with the skills our economy needs to recover.

In his speech on Tuesday, the Prime Minister set out more detail on the government’s plans, signalling how the Government intends to grapple with this inevitable unemployment crisis and begin to fulfil the ‘levelling up’ promises.

The PM set out how he plans to end a “bogus distinction between FE and HE”, introducing a series of changes aimed at making practical study more attractive

Front and centre was his announcement to create a new ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ offering free Level 3 courses to adults without equivalent qualifications.  This will be paid for from the National Skills Fund, announced in the Conservative election manifesto. To date there has been no other real detail about how the fund will work or what it will cover. Eligible courses will be announced in due course, meaning there is still time for providers to ensure that their courses are covered while also making sure that any further action on the National Skills Fund is aligned with their offer.

Reforms to the apprenticeship system will enable businesses to use unspent levy funds to support apprentices within non-levy paying SMEs, and apprenticeships will become “portable”, so they can easily be moved between companies. This has long been called for by many in the sector, but questions still remain about whether this will be sufficient to fully fund non-levy apprenticeships.

The PM also committed to taking forward a key recommendation on further education from the Augar Review, opening up the main student finance mechanism to students undertaking higher technical qualifications. This is a positive step, but without adequate maintenance support, potential learners may question how they can support themselves to study such a course without an income.

Building on this, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will over time progress into a system where all students can access a lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education, as part of cementing efforts to bridge the gap between Higher and Further Education. This ambition sits at the heart of the Government’s education agenda.

A signal of future system overhaul?

Reform has long been on the agenda, and a Further Education system that meets the economy’s skills needs has been a key aspiration for governments going back over decades.

The reforms announced by the Prime Minister cast some light on the potential foundations of the imminent Further Education White Paper which is expected to begin that process of better aligning Further and Higher Education and ensure the value of Further Education is recognised by learners and employers. However, a lot more needs to happen to deliver the Education Secretary’s vision to create a “world-class, German-style further education system”, which would “level up skills and opportunities” and “give FE the investment it deserves”.

Covid has, of course, posed some significant short-term challenges for the Further Education sector, but the White Paper must also settle a number of long-term questions regarding the future of Further Education. Whilst there is agreement the system needs reform, there is a lack of consensus over what this reform looks like.

Clearly Number 10 and the Department for Education are keen to show they are responding to challenges on the horizon with bursts of good news. But, as officials hash out the details of reforms behind the scenes, there is now a clear opportunity to influence what Further Education reform looks like on the ground, and government will be no doubt be looking to the sector for guidance.

Aligning business priorities with government aspirations

Foremost is the question of, in practice, how much the Education Secretary’s vision for a German-style Further Education system actually borrows from Germany. In Williamson’s speech announcing the White Paper, he only made two references to Germany. Instead his tone focused on the value that the UK attaches to Further Education, and how it falls far short of our European neighbour.

Like Germany, Williamson wants our Further Education system to put employers at its heart. He sees colleges acting as hubs within regions, linking vocational training with employers and helping meet the skills needs of the local economy. Now is the time for providers who hold strong local business links and play a role in supporting the local skills needs to make a case to government for regional control. Otherwise, the question government will be asking is, can their desired vision to bridge the gap between Higher and Further Education be achieved without national, centralised oversight?

It is also still to be seen whether the Further Education White Paper will come alongside the long-awaited review of the Apprenticeship Levy, first announced by then Chancellor Philip Hammond in 2018. This also reappeared in the Conservative’s election manifesto, which promised to improve the workings of the levy.

Whilst concerns that expensive apprenticeships are sapping up levy funds have been temporarily supressed by the pandemic, this issue will undoubtedly return in the long-term. Providers should use this opportunity to push for system changes they want to see which have been exposed by how the levy has been used to date. In any case, training providers and employers drawing on these funds will need to justify the contribution to the economy their programmes deliver.

Whilst Williamson may have a clear vision in his head, officials at the Department for Education – under the watchful eye of Number 10 – will now be in listening mode to help flesh out the details of Further Education reform as we approach the White Paper’s launch – and as they begin implementing policy reform on the ground.

To speak to Cameron about this article please email cameronwall@wacomms.co.uk

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