Mike Watson on why lifelong learning must mean exactly that
Today sees the Lords second reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, the first piece of government education legislation for over four years.
The bill aims to introduce a Lifetime Skills Guarantee (LSG), albeit with a rather narrow focus within the technical disciplines it would support. It also fails to consider qualifications below level 3 – despite these offering many adult learners key progression routes. Expanding and extending such support would help tackle both the impact of the pandemic on employment and changing job market demands.
One significant barrier for adult learners is the cost of study – an issue highlighted in the bill’s Impact Assessment but not in the legislation. While provisions are made for a Lifetime Loan Entitlement (LLE), the details have yet to be confirmed and it appears entitlement will only cover tuition costs for higher-level courses. The system of loans and means-tested grants should be extended to support adult learners’ living costs. Universal credit conditions should also be reformed so those who would benefit from attending college or accessing training whilst unemployed (or working part-time) do not lose out.
The lack of urgency displayed by ministers is clear from the fact that that the LSG is not scheduled for introduction until 2024, with the LLE delayed a further year. Both of those dates must be brought forward.
The bill provides a statutory basis for Local Skills Improvement Plans, with the Secretary of State taking powers to designate employer representative bodies to lead on development. Meanwhile, FE colleges and independent training providers would be placed under a duty to co-operate and have regard to such plans.
A rather simplistic focus of the bill is that employers should be the exclusive drivers of technical education. They certainly have an important contribution to make, but to suggest that no other bodies should have an input is wrongheaded. Not least, as employers don’t have a great track record in training their employees for future patterns of work and developing skills demands.
The proposals also ignore existing structures. Metro mayors, combined authorities – many with democratic accountability for local skills and economic regeneration – and Local Enterprise Partnerships are all excluded. We will therefore seek amendments that empower these bodies to co-produce local plans in recognition of their own crucial roles.
The bill also has a random higher education clause, relating to assessment and regulation of providers. It gives the sector regulator, the Office for Students, the right to measure course quality without using benchmarks. This runs the risk of turning the tide on widening access for the less advantaged and working with students of all backgrounds to achieve their own successes, and the government’s rationale is unclear.
Wholesale changes to how FE colleges, skills, adult learning and part-time HE are supported are long overdue, but the bill is not equipped to tackle the scale of the skills challenges following years of neglect and underfunding - and now exacerbated by the pandemic. The skills agenda and the goal of lifelong learning will only succeed if it is accompanied by sustained long-term funding, and ministers must commit the resources urgently needed.
Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 15th June 2021