The biggest shake-up to vocational education and training in over a decade is currently passing through Parliament on its journey to becoming law.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill pledges to transform post-16 education and training, boost skills, invest in lifelong learning for adults and get more people into work.
MPs had their first opportunity to debate the main principles of the Bill during its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday, November 15th. So, why should you care?
Colleges provide a huge range of vocational and academic qualifications from entry through to degree level and are at the forefront of a skills-led pandemic economic recovery.
We are the sector that helps to build priority skills by training the next generation of adult social care workers, computer scientists, construction experts, life scientists, nurses, police officers and teachers – to name but a few.
Our contribution, and that of colleges up and down the country, underpins the careers and future success of thousands of young people, adults and employers and local communities.
At The Sheffield College, we know that transforming lives through learning leads to improved life chances for the 14,000 young people and adults who study with us every year. It contributes to social mobility and supports employers with the skills that they, and our regional economy, urgently need.
Putting employers at the heart of the system, so that education and training leads to jobs that improve productivity and fill skills gaps, is a key part of the Bill following the publication of the government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper earlier this year.
Investing in the roll-out of the new T Levels, which are equivalent to three A Levels and backed by employers, and higher technical qualifications that provide a valuable alternative to a university degree is also central to the government’s plans.
Adults are also set to get an opportunity to retrain. The rationale behind that is the ‘levelling up’ agenda to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live or their background, can gain the skills to progress in work at any stage of their lives.
The delivery of vocational and technical education and skills is what colleges do really well. That’s why it is positive to see the emphasis on skills in the Bill as well as the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 announced by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP last month.
We embrace a rebalancing of academic and technical education to ensure there is parity of esteem. However, whilst a raft of measures announced in both the Bill and the Budget are welcome, they just don’t go far enough in terms of taking a long term view.
The newly announced £1.6 billion of funding between now and 2024/25 is welcome but it doesn’t ensure that we have a sustainable skills strategy for the future. Due to a demographic up-swing, more 16-19-year-olds will take up technical courses over the next few years.
Whilst the funding for that demographic growth is a step in the right direction, it’s worth pointing out that colleges are entitled to it. What we need is sustainable investment and parity with schools with a real increase in the funding per college student included.
Whilst it is great to see recognition of adult learners, there is much to do to ensure that they are able to reskill and upskill, and to raise aspirations to secure good jobs. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee and an increase in the number of free Level 3 vocational programmes, equivalent to A Levels, will make a difference to some adults.
However, much of the planning for adults is geared towards short term, project based initiatives. We would benefit from a more planned and strategic approach to ensure learners can study and develop skills for prosperous futures and benefit from a lifetime of learning. There is a need for a long-term settlement.
There is also a wider issue about T Levels and who will be able to access them in addition to concerns about student choice and the future of other vocational qualifications, that have sparked a recent national petition.
In terms of other skills training, we welcome confirmation in the Budget that apprenticeships will continue to be a priority. Capital investment in college estates is a boost for some organisations – although this will benefit the small number of colleges currently or soon able to offer T Levels and launch Institutes of Technology.
As part of the Association of Colleges, we have been lobbying for long-term investment so that colleges can contribute to the country’s economic rebuild and maximise their impact on students, businesses and communities.
For too long, the further education sector has been overlooked and underfunded. The latest announcements will not reverse the impact of a decade of funding cuts on our sector.
Whilst it is encouraging that we are at the heart of discussions rather than on the periphery, what colleges really need is long-term investment and financial stability to properly play their part in ‘levelling up’ all areas of the country.
This will enable more of our students to benefit from high quality education and training, regardless of their background or where they live, and to address employer skills shortages.
Angela Foulkes, Chief Executive and Principal, The Sheffield College
This article was first published in the Sheffield Telegraph.