All Change (again)
22 July 2016
Well it’s certainly interesting times in Westminster at the moment. Between Brexit and a huge overhaul of politicians in the cabinet and shadow cabinet – it’s pretty hard to keep up with what it means for the country. And then the FE sector.
In the middle of all the political turmoil and chaos it could have been possible (particularly if you don’t work in the FE sector) to miss the fact that the ‘Skills Plan’ was released on 8 July. Just a matter of days later Nick Boles MP exited left of stage as Skills Minster and it was announced that responsibility for skills and apprenticeships will move from Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and become part of the remit of Department for Education (DfE) (again).
It should stand to reason that post Brexit the FE skills sector should become even more important than ever as we will now have to rely on home-grown skills to meet our own needs and to enable us to export and compete on the global stage. So the question is will the Skills Plan and the new structure of the DfE enable us to better meet the skills needs of the country in this new post-Brexit landscape? Or will it be another 'meddle' with a cursory nod to skills and then all the attention back then on the education system?
Let’s start with the changes at BIS and the DfE. The reaction from the sector on the whole so far has been one of cautious optimism about the many possible benefits from this transition. The change may mean that careers advice can become more balanced and joined up so young people and their families understand the breadth of choices available to them both via the professional and technical and academic routes. If handled correctly, we may also finally begin to see greater ‘parity-of-esteem’ between these two routes to work if the same department is watching over them.
However, the caution arises because we have been here before, and when skills has been has been part of education it has always been treated as the poor relation. Government must make a concerted effort now to ensure that all educational routes, whether they be A-Levels and degrees or Tech Levels and Apprenticeships, are given equal weighting and attention by the DfE.
Additionally, it will be vitally important to ensure throughout these changes that the links to employers and industry, which have only recently been re-forged via the apprenticeship reforms aren’t lost. It will be crucial now to ensure that there are the right people in place within the DfE with the experience, knowledge and employer connections to support high quality education and skills development in the UK. The role of the Institute for Apprenticeships, with its now brief in technical skills, has to connect back to industry not just education if we going to witness stepped change in the outcomes we need.
Moving onto the skills plan. If I were being optimistic, I would say that this does provide a real focus on what the FE sector delivers and direction on how it might be better shaped for the future with tighter links to what industry actually demands not what the funding is available for. The principles of the plan will mean a simplified system with far fewer qualifications than the extremely confusing 20,000 that are currently available, and with clear routes to careers in one of the 15 industries that most need skilled workers in the UK.
However, there are a number of things that cause real concern. Firstly, the idea of young people having to choose either a vocational or an academic route seems reminiscent of a post-war era two-tier educational system. We would like to see a new, more flexible approach allowing young people to study for a particular career with clearly defined progression routes that integrate not separate and segregate learners between academic and vocational.
Whilst we wholly agree that some rationalisation within the sector is necessary, the suggestion that only one awarding organisation (or one group of awarding organisations) can deliver specific qualifications is also of concern as it risks creating a monopoly.
The potential long term impact of this could be that the market no longer offers up healthy completion and choice based on quality and best fit for the ultimate end users – the employers.
As with the apprenticeship reforms, the devil is in the detail, and it’s the successful implementation of policies rather than the policies themselves that we need to be focusing on. This plan does leave a lot of questions unanswered but we cannot ignore it does also present an opportunity for the FE sector to work in a clearer partnership with employers to create a lasting change, however, it’s important that Government policy supports change and doesn’t dilute or make more complex what should simply be about providing quality and choice in a joined up education and skills system.
My parting comment is a call to Government to set this course now with the sector and employers and stick to it over the coming years, enabling the sector to adapt to change and stabilise in the same way that schools and sixth form colleges have been able to with GCSEs and A Levels since the 1980s.
We have seen so much change in recent years between the apprenticeship reforms, area reviews, the skills plan and the move back to the DfE we need to have some time to let the dust settle. In our 2014 research ‘Sense and Instability’ we highlighted the fact that the sector had already seen unprecedented change over the past 30 years moving from department to department within Government, and with 61 secretaries of state in charge of the sector (compared to just 18 in schools and 16 in Higher Education). We called for stability then – and we call for it again now. Don’t let the Skills Plan be just another ‘flash-in-the-pan’.