With the UK parliament returning this week, it’s a good time to reflect on the Skills Bill – to ask where we got to ahead of summer recess, and what key themes need to be addressed in the next stages of the Bill’s progress.
There are three key areas which require particular attention if the Bill is to deliver on its stated ambitions – and those of the Right2Learn campaign – of better enabling people to train and study right throughout their lives. First is how the Bill can ensure that all people, regardless of age, background and circumstance, have access to the education and training they need, at the level they need it. Second is how the Bill can develop a joined-up, collaborative local ecosystem. And third is how the Bill is used to drive a cross-departmental, long-term national strategy for education and skills. All of these have happily been discussed in quite some detail by peers in the Skills Bill debates so far – and could be the matter of considerable debate as peers push for amendments in the Report Stage.
Lifelong learning opportunities for all
The Lords debates so far have gone into some detail on the extent to which the Bill in fact opens up lifelong learning opportunities for all. There is the matter of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which entitles everyone to a first, funded level 3 qualification for a set of eligible courses – a commitment which notably isn’t present in the legislation itself, as many had anticipated it would be. Lord Clark very reasonably asked, if it is indeed a guarantee, why it is not on the face of the Bill itself. And peers noted that many people will require studying for a subsequent level 3 qualification, given changes in the world of work – with Baroness Wyld arguing that many people ‘could, in effect, be frozen out because they have an existing qualification.’
A large number of peers raised the need to give greater attention to lower-level provision within the Bill, and have argued that the Lifetime Skills Guarantee (L3) and Lifelong Loan Entitlement (L4+) need to be developed as part of a clear continuum. And the historic poor alignment between welfare and skills policy has been a matter of considerable debate, including noting in the words of the Bishop of Durham, that ‘the current welfare rules pose a major barrier to upskilling or retraining for many people out of work.’
On the much-anticipated detail on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, peers have been clear that this new entitlement is insufficient if it does not also include access to maintenance support. Here Lord Flight proposed an amendment which would establish a maintenance support system that would enable ‘everyone to live reasonably while studying or training at colleges of both FE and HE’ – echoing an amendment proposed by Lord Watson, which similarly received cross-party support.
Local education and skills ecosystems
The second key theme relates to the local ecosystem, and the extent to which the reforms will empower colleges, universities and other providers to collaborate locally, with employers and the other key actors – including crucially local government, students’ unions, trade unions and other relevant community organisations and agencies. As Baroness Wilcox argued, making these new local ecosystems work will mean establishing ‘the right balance of autonomy, authority and accountabilities that will enable schools, colleges and universities to focus on the complementary roles they can play together and with other partners over the long term’ which ‘must involve a genuine partnership, with providers empowered to stimulate and challenge articulated demand, rather than act as passive policy recipients.’
The worry for many peers is that this dynamic risks being one-sided, as it currently stands, with the voice of employers, important as it is, heard to the exclusion of other equally important partners. Baroness Morris called for ‘assurance that they [colleges and other providers] will be listened to and will have the ability to influence what is going on’, with ‘some powers to put a brake on something if they do not like it.’ And peers were clear on wanting clarity on the accountabilities on employer representatives bodies designated as leading Local Skills Improvement Plans, too.
Peers were also wary of the lack of alignment to local government and Mayoral Combined Authorities. Lord Adonis warned that it is a ‘fat lot of good’ if the role of MCAs involves simply being consulted on the local plans, while Lord Bradley argued that one of the best ways of ensuring that LSIPs reflect ‘a holistic and objective overview of the whole education, skills and employment system’ is to give a formal role to MCAs, where they exist.
A cohesive and collaborative national strategy
The third theme is how this all comes together as part of a cohesive national strategy, which many across education and skills are calling for. Speaking to this, Lord Aberdare called for a ‘joining the dots’ between Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) and national strategies, which Baroness Wilcox argued will require long-term planning, across Whitehall – calling on government ‘to prepare and publish a cross-departmental 10-year national strategy for education and skills to deliver on a wide policy agenda’ – aligning for example to decarbonisation and biodiversity, welfare and levelling up strategies.
And there was clear agreement of the need to resist creating new siloes or forms of competition across the education and skills system. Lord Bradley here said that ‘the funding system, along with the regulatory system, across further and higher education needs to promote collaboration and co-operation, not competition’, Baroness Garden argued for the need to affirm ‘complementary roles and look for a whole-education collaboration style’ and Lord Willetts argued for the need to ensure the reforms do not ‘create conflict between higher and further education when both have an important role to play.’ Lord Johnson argued that ultimately this will require a return to the matter of regulation – saying ‘the time is surely coming… for us to move to a joined-up system of regulation and funding for all post-16 education.’
Where does this leave those of us sitting outside parliament? Peers have certainly raised a set of important challenges and will now have to decide which themes to push to a vote at report stage. So, there is a key task as a sector in galvanising support for amendments and pushing government to go further where we feel that’s required, while also engaging MPs ahead of the Bill’s progress through the House of Commons.
Beyond the Bill itself, there are a number of issues raised which will have to be picked up elsewhere – in the decarbonisation agenda, the anticipated SEND Green Paper and Levelling Up White Paper, and of course the upcoming spending review. A significant number of peers have come forward as clear advocates on these issues (including no less than four former Education Secretaries, four former education ministers and one former Chancellor), so there is a lot of scope for working closely with them to influence those wider agendas, embedding skills in public policy and spending priorities better than ever before.
And there’s a lot too that we can get on with as a sector, to drive these necessary changes at a local level too. Colleges and employer representative bodies in the recently-announced successful LSIP trailblazers and Strategic Development Fund (SDF) pilots will be thinking hard about how they want to work together in partnership, and how they can work with other key partners – and those not successful in the trailblazers and pilots are already reflecting on how they want things to work locally when the model is rolled out nationally. So, there’s huge scope for the sector to lead the way in building new linkages between colleges, universities, schools and other providers, strengthening relationships with mayoral combined authorities and local government, and embedding the voice of students, staff and the wider community in all of this – and in so doing demonstrating and strengthening the new environment that they want to operate in.
The case for building a cohesive, sustainably funded system of lifelong learning in England is inescapable, redressing years of neglect. Achieving it will require close engagement and campaigning over coming months. It continues to be a key time for everyone who supports the aims of the Right2Learn campaign – and an important autumn ahead.
Lewis Cooper is Director of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future (www.collegecommission.co.uk).