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

Words by:
Senior Account Director
November 6, 2020

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

  • Those providers that want to secure funding must demonstrate their value to the government and the outcomes that their services will provide. This government is data-driven, and so approaches that are underpinned by clear evidence and set out the anticipated return on investment for the government are likely to be more successful.
  • There is a narrowing window of opportunity for influence and so providers must build a strong case for funding as quickly as possible. Much of this funding has already been announced and, in the case of the catch-up premium, has started to be distributed. Relationships with Ministers, SpAds and officials at the Department for Education will be key here, as will building up influential parliamentary allies to advocate to the government on your behalf.
  • Providers could also leverage their constituency links to build a coalition of advocates from their locality or region to make the case for specific funding, in specific areas. In the case of skills, some regions are in clear need of targeted investment, while those providers that already work closely with local education settings will be in a good position to bid for funding for mental health support and from the catch-up premium.
  • As with all organisations that receive public funding, there are reputational risks attached to failing to deliver services that achieve their promised outcomes. Therefore providers must ensure that they clearly meet the criteria set out by the government for service delivery, as well as set realistic targets. Having informal discussions with officials in advance of any bidding will be beneficial here.
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