Finding your way through government policy towards education and more broadly is like trying to find your way around a city in thick fog without either a map or a compass. The latest FE White Paper is yet another that underlines this and mostly adds to the problem.
Let’s start by saying what place the government should be trying to get to. Firstly, we live in a grossly unfair society in which any notion of equal opportunity is absent. This is obviously going to be much worse as a result of Covid-19. Of course the point goes well beyond education as such, but trying to develop education policy without recognising and seeking to address this is bound to fail. If we don’t know where we are going, we most certainly won’t get there.
Secondly, within education itself there is no clear road map. For example, it’s all very well spelling out what will be done in, say, further education, but it should be part of an integrated policy that addresses educational need from cradle to grave.
Thirdly, a huge amount of ground needs to be made up following years of underinvestment in lifelong learning in particular. As a direct result of massive “austerity”-driven funding cuts, there has been a 61% fall in part-time learners over the past 10 years, most of them over 21. The government has to realise that, if we are to keep pace internationally with technological and economic progress, the skills of millions of our people already in the workforce need to be substantially upgraded.
Let me illustrate the problem by reference to the recent White Paper - Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth.
It talks about continuing to support participation in English, maths and digital training. But these are key topics that must be addressed long before pupils reach 16. Schools and charities have the will to do this, but nowhere near sufficient resource to address shortcomings.
Furthermore, it is these foundation skills that are often lacking amongst all ages, so the White Paper’s acknowledgement that lifelong learning needs to be funded and delivered for adults to reach levels 4 and 5 completely overlooks those adults who don’t have the basic skills to tackle, for example, higher technical education, never mind highly skilled jobs.
So one problem with offering a flexible Lifetime Skills Guarantee is that the loan entitlement to be available (in four years' time) is for “the equivalent of four years of post-18 education”. We also have to target those who were failed in their primary and secondary education before they can realistically upskill at levels 4 and 5.
What is more, the chances of many of the people who need this help being prepared to take out a loan when they are most likely living at the margin, with heavy family responsibilities, are slight. Of course giving grants means much higher public spending initially, but also a much better chance of accelerating our progress towards being a genuinely skills-led economy, with all the economic and social benefits that will flow from that.
The White Paper talks about putting employers at the heart of post-16 skills. This has been said many times before, and the track record of delivery is generally very poor. The nearest we came to it is Investors in People. Much more to the point would be to put the whole community at the heart of skills policy, and not just for post-16. This means including local authorities, schools, colleges, universities and learning hubs in every community in the development and implementation of policy.
It is good to see the proposal to “provide clear information about career outcomes”, but this falls a long way short of ensuring that all school, college and university leavers, and those coming back into education in mid-career, have access to employability skills and careers advice.
To conclude, this piecemeal approach to policy, both in education and more broadly, suggests that the journey through the fog will be made even more difficult as the fog lifts - occasionally to allow a glimpse of a hoped-for landmark on the way which turns out to be on the wrong route, partially built or just a diversion.
To quote Andy Westwood, Professor at Manchester University: “Potential links with other departmental agendas such as those at DWP, BEIS and MHCLG have been largely ignored. The Treasury is ominously silent.”
Tim Melville Ross CBE is a Senior Advisor at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.