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

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Too many cooks? Navigating change in apprenticeships policy

It may have only been two years since the government officially declared its apprenticeships reform programme over, but change is firmly back on the horizon. Spurred on by Ministerial interest from Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, apprenticeships, and the skills agenda more widely, is firmly in the sights of government.

While the planned reforms are unlikely to be on the same scale as those introduced under Cameron, the expectation remains that substantial changes will be made, with the aim of focusing on scaling up apprenticeship numbers and improving course quality. The government is under pressure to translate their ambitions into reality, particularly as the apprenticeship levy remains unpopular with employers. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that only one fifth of employers think the levy is working well at present, with dissatisfied employers calling for a more flexible system that allows the funding to be used to pay for a wider range of training.

Ministerial interest, but no overarching strategy

Assuming the government is able to create the bandwidth it needs to take on new policy challenges, apprenticeships, and skill development more widely, will likely rank highly on its list of priorities. With direct interest from Rishi Sunak and ambitious manifesto commitments made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the skills agenda benefits from the attentions of the highest level of government. While this attention ensures that further education is never far from the top of the government’s agenda, it has not resulted in a coherent single strategy, with many of the key players in apprenticeships policymaking pulling in different directions. With the Department for Education, Treasury and now the Department for Work and Pensions all involved in policy development, this does not appear to be changing any time soon, nor does it suggest that the forthcoming round of reforms will be a straightforward one

The implications of this cross departmental interest played out in a very public way during the fallout from Rishi Sunak’s comments during the Spring Statement on 23 March, where he told the House of Commons he would “consider” whether the current tax system, including the operation of the apprenticeship levy, is “doing enough to invest in the right kinds of training”.  Sunak, inspired by the employer investment he saw while working in California, is keen to incentivise employer spending on upskilling their workforce, including through the introduction of tax credits and embedding more flexibility for employers in the system.

No sooner than Sunak had spoken the Department for Education were playing down the scope of any further change to the apprenticeships system. Having not been consulted, the DfE pushed back on any assumptions of widespread reform to the apprenticeships system.

This episode is telling for multiple reasons. First, Sunak clearly didn’t feel the need to inform the Department for Education of his plans in advance. This signals that the Department for Education is no longer at the centre of apprenticeships policy and may be further side-lined in terms of the forthcoming reforms. This suggests we are entering a period where employer focused reform – the clear centre of the Treasury’s focus – will be the key narrative driving the policy debate. Expect a focus on making the levy more attractive to employers and increasing incentives for employers to upskill their workforce.

The second is the force with which the DfE denied any reform would be taking place. Having only completed a period of substantial reform two years ago, the Department is keen to move to a ‘bedding in’ period to allow it to focus reform efforts elsewhere. Having just launched the Schools White Paper and SEND Green Paper, as well as dealing with the fall-out from the faltering education catch up programme, Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi will be unwilling (and likely unable) to launch another major reform effort.

Higher apprenticeships have seen growth, but there is still scope for lower level apprenticeships to close the gap

While the DfE may be unwilling to get involved with further reform of the apprenticeships system, one person very keen on the idea is Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey. Apprenticeships as a means to upskill and retrain the workforce, reduce the number of individuals not in education or employment and increase the number of individuals able to improve their career prospects through training is of interest and may change the dynamic of any further tweaks to the system, including a potential move away from post-16 education and towards upskilling of the existing workforce and post-25 education. We are already seeing something to that effect take place –  there are now nearly twice as many over-25 year olds doing apprenticeships than 19-year olds.

Currently, this is leading to growth in demand for higher level apprenticeships, at the expense of lower levels. Fewer 16-19 year olds taking apprenticeships, as well as increased popularity of apprenticeships being used by working professionals to top-up their qualifications, is having a significant effect on the demographics of apprentices and the kinds of courses they undertake.  While this has had an effect on the uptake of lower-level apprenticeships, there is scope to rectify this. 8.5 million adults in England & Wales, equivalent to 30% of the working population – are qualified to Level 2 or below, something the government is keen to change. Expansion of apprenticeships uptake as a whole is the aim, and the Department for Education, while sidestepping any significant reform programme, will be keen to increase the uptake of low level apprenticeships, by both young people and working adults without these qualifications.

There has never been a quiet time in apprenticeships policy, but set against a backdrop of a major overhaul of the further education and skills agenda, apprenticeships are likely to remain a slowly evolving policy area over the rest of this parliament and in to next. The Chancellor is expected to announce next steps on his work to make apprenticeships more attractive to employers at the Autumn Budget, but ahead of this, it is possible that the government may include an indication of its policymaking in the upcoming Queen’s Speech in May 2022.   There is significant scope here for an expansion of the sector if the government can meet its policy aims, but all involved departments will have to work together to see real, coherent progress.

To discuss the government’s latest approach to apprenticeships reform, please email Lizzy Cryar on

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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

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Webinar – In conversation with the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP

On Tuesday 18h November 2020, WA Communications Director, Lisa Townsend, sat down with the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP to discuss her Early Years Healthy Development Review, the first phase of which will report to the government in January.

The first 1,000 days of children’s lives are critical for their development, and hugely impact their physical health, mental health and opportunity throughout their lives. The potential for the ‘levelling up’ agenda to support the early years is vast, and something we know is on the government’s agenda.


The webinar covered a huge range of issues, providing insight on subjects such as:


Watch a recording of the webinar:





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Webinar: In conversation with David Willetts

In light of the government’s recent announcement that it is scrapping the 50% university target, WA was delighted to speak to the Rt Hon Lord David Willetts on the future outlook for the higher education sector as part of our ‘In Conversation’ series on Tuesday 28th July 2020.

Lord Willetts is a former Minister of State for Universities and Science, and in 2017 he published ‘A University Education’, which offers a powerful account of the value of higher education and the case for more expansion.

The future for the higher education sector in the UK looks stark. The sector faces huge challenges over funding and the long-term financial sustainability of higher education institutions, but they also face political pressures on a range of other issues too, from grade inflation to Vice Chancellor pay. Compounding this are the challenges the sector now faces from Covid-19.

Given this, the discussion explored:

• Funding challenges, including the Augar Review, Brexit and pressures from Covid-19
• Grade inflation and the quality of degree courses
• Free speech on campuses
• Vice Chancellor pay
• How higher education institutions must adapt their teaching after Covid-19
• Conversely, the role that research and science can play in Covid-19 recovery



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Webinar: Priorities for mental health policy: the consequences of COVID-19

Clinical experts are talking of a ‘tsunami’ of mental ill health as the UK looks to recover from COVID-19; the challenge faced is not only stark for people who were living with mental ill health before the pandemic and who have struggled to access care, services and treatment, but for up to half a million additional people in the UK who are now estimated to have a mental illness.

The interplay between other health conditions and mental health is also more prominent than ever before.

All parts of society will have a role in helping to address this mental health challenge and health leaders and politicians will need to consider how health policy will need to adjust to deliver this.

To explore these issues, WA hosted a roundtable with an expert panel including:

Amongst other topics, the roundtable meeting discussed:


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Webinar: What does the future for apprenticeships, skills and FE look like?

WA Communications were delighted to host this panel discussion on what the future looks like for skills and training and how a strong approach to upskilling will need to underpin the government’s plans for recovery from Covid-19.

The Chancellor’s announcements in the Summer Statement and the recent speech from the Education Secretary show that skills is on the government’s agenda – but what is needed to truly support the sector and ensure both young people and working-age adults are given the opportunities to train to meet the skills gaps businesses need to be filled?

We were delighted to be joined by a panel including:



If you missed the webinar live, you can watch a recording of the event by filling in the form below:


Watch a recording of the webinar:





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Universities and Covid-19: Are we looking at a longer term reconfiguration of the sector?

Universities and Covid-19: Are we looking at a longer term reconfiguration of the sector?

Since the early days of lockdown, as students returned home in droves and lecturers rushed to work out how to move teaching online, it has been clear the Covid-19 crisis would have a significant impact on universities.

In April, Universities UK warned universities were facing a £2.5bn black hole, thanks to a loss of income from accommodation, catering and conferences, as well as the significant impact of an expected fall in international student numbers and a rise in deferrals by new domestic students.

Compared to its action to support other sectors, the government has been slow to set out support for HE, this is despite the significant research, economic and societal contributions universities make to the UK.

The government’s package of support

It took until 4 May for any package of support to be set out. And it wasn’t until this point that the government also formally confirmed universities were eligible for the wider business support measures available, after reports many were struggling to secure loans under the new schemes.

Ad hoc funding boosts for specific research projects aside, until this weekend the main measures announced have been a return to student number controls for 2020/21, a bolstered clearing process to give students more opportunities to switch places once their results are in, and the bringing forward of £2.6bn worth of tuition fee payments for the autumn term and £100m of quality-related research funding to the current academic year to help financial and research stability.

This weekend, two further measures were announced to help mitigate the loss of international student income in order to protect funding for high quality STEM-focused research.

The first measure is £280m of government funding for grant extensions so research impacted by the crisis can continue.

The second is the introduction, from the autumn, of low-interest, long pay-back period loans for research-active universities, supplemented by a small amount of government grants. The government will cover up to 80% of a university’s income losses from international students for 2020/21, up to the value of the university’s non-publicly funded research activity.

All these measures seem sensible at a time of crisis and when funding sustainability is a genuine concern for the sector. However, they are unlikely to cover all the financial implications of this crisis, and when combined with the delays in setting out support, raise questions about its longer-term outlook for higher education in the UK.

The question is, what is the government trying to achieve here?

Both the student number control announcement and this weekend’s research support announcement favour those well-regarded, traditional research-intensive institutions.

The student number controls are based on an institution’s projected intake and allow additional growth of up to 5%. This should mainly benefit those big players that had strong domestic student growth plans for 2020/21.

Meanwhile, the loans announced this weekend are capped at the level of an institution’s non-publicly funded research, so they are focused on ensuring funds are directed towards universities conducting research and will not cover the elements of international student income used elsewhere. That means this will not help those primarily teaching focused or less research intensive institutions.

At the end of all these announcements, the government has also been clear that universities are expected to make efficiencies and that it will only intervene if providers fail as a last resort. This will be done via a new restructuring regime which is being developed by the DfE, BEIS and the Treasury, through which they will review providers’ circumstances and assess the need for restructuring, with attached conditions.

This has been interpreted by some in the sector as indicative of a longer-term plan from the government to shake-up the HE sector, with the government happy to reconfigure those parts of the sector seen as less successful to deliver more FE or merge with other institutions.

Certainly, reforms to the sector were always on the table. We are still waiting for the response to the Augar Review – which is still coming – which when coupled with changes to the TEF, the delays to the REF, and the development of KEF, mean sector reforms are likely.

What do institutions need to do?

In a political environment where outstanding research, particularly in STEM areas, is such a highly valued commodity, those institutions with less of a research reputation, and a focus instead on teaching or non-STEM support, could struggle.

Augar himself recently suggested that rather than the fee cuts he suggested in his review, current fees should be frozen and teaching grants for ‘strategic subjects’ increased. He also mooted the idea of a system where universities pay back grants used for ‘over-supplied, low-cost courses’ with that funding redirected to higher priority subjects. This could be very problematic for those institutions that focus delivery on subjects seen as a low priority.

Value is ultimately the aim: from a national and regional economic perspective and in terms of meeting the major challenges facing government on Covid, issues like climate change, and levelling up the country. At the moment the government seems to see that as being derived from high quality, STEM-focused, research intensive institutions.

Those that don’t fit that mould will need to prove their worth and demonstrate how their work does derive value – either in those priority areas for government or by evidencing why their areas of focus are just as important. This will take time and a concerted effort to speak to the right people, with the right evidence, at the right time.

But without it, there could be parts of the sector who are left behind or see detrimental interventions at a time when they are already in a precarious position.


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