This White Paper appears at a time of national crisis and continued peril from the consequences of the pandemic. It needs therefore to engage with the immediate situation for all those whose jobs, skills and future life chances across all ages are in danger of being blighted by the economic impact of Covid-19.
With this in mind , the Right to Learn campaign last week published a manifesto of intent (What should we do now? A manifesto from the Right2Learn campaign – right2learn.co.uk), with a five point set of themes that would address the challenges of the moment but also lay out a strategic pathway for skills and learning post-COVID-19 throughout the 2020s. Those themes are breaking down barriers within education , integrating and coordinating services together across Government, empowering communities on the ground to improve access to skills and learning, tackling inequalities and increased investment.
However this White Paper has missed a raft of opportunities to address the changed situation we face. There is little or nothing here about collaboration with other schemes such as the Kickstart scheme on jobs for young people which is being operated through the Department of Work and Pensions and not linked with apprenticeships and traineeships , which are currently at historic lows. Many of the promises underpinning its strategies are ones that have been going the rounds for years – putting employers at the heart of the system was first mentioned by Government in 2012. There is little or nothing about the role of small businesses or of support for learning and employment providers – who are responsible for the majority of apprenticeships. There is also little in the White Paper either to address left behind places, silenced communities and other disadvantaged groups where Ofqual are already warning Government that reducing tried and tested qualifications like BTECs will make things worse.
While any increased funding and involvement at local level for FE colleges is welcome, it needs far more than just a recruitment campaign to get individuals to teach there. It requires also a major commitment to improving the conditions of service and professional development of existing staff in the sector. Alongside the involvement of colleges in the Skills for Jobs strategy, there are welcome proposals for the inclusion of business groups , including Chambers of Commerce. But there is also a huge swathe of groups written out of this scenario including the self-employed, cooperatives, the third sector locally and trade unions. There is little notice either of the key role that mayors , combined authorities and other local government and statutory bodies need to play if Skills for Jobs is to be a success.
The top-down restrictions from Whitehall which will exclude people from accessing free Level 3 skills, especially in the service sector, risks the Lifetime Skills Guarantee heralded by the Prime Minister becoming a damp squib. Would be adult learners wanting or needing to reskill in the future for new jobs or careers have to have that chance , and not simply restricted to supplying the immediate requirements of their current employers. The failure also to offer a comprehensive new approach to a national careers service and IAG is really serious – just upgrading a website is utterly inadequate.
The proposal within the White Paper to expand a failed student loan system deeper into further education shows that DfE ministers have not learned from the past. The systematic failure to appreciate the aversion of adult learners to loans which has left hundreds of millions of pounds unused year by year and just returned to the Treasury is symbolic of its failure. That money could be used to fund maintenance grants for learners, especially higher qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 as well as at Level 2s which are a key step on the ladder of progression.
Government needs now to have a sweeping, no-holds barred consultation across all of the groups mentioned here. That is essential to make sure that the right to learn for all adults is a centrepiece for recovery from the pandemic, bringing increases in productivity, economic revival, social cohesion and the levelling up so urgently required