By Stephen Evans
“We must put employers’ needs for skills centre stage. We must make colleges and training providers more responsive to employers’ and learners’ needs, reaching out to more businesses and more people, and providing training in ways that suit them.
“Creating a truly demand-led approach means reforming qualifications, reforming the way we fund colleges, and reforming the way we deliver training.”
It’s difficult to argue with this quote from the White Paper. Unfortunately, it’s from the 2003 Skills White Paper.
Will this latest publication be the moment we look back on as when we finally “cracked it”?
Short answer: only with investment, more radical change, and sustained commitment.
Perhaps the White Paper’s main contributions are to put further education centre stage, which matters after the last decade, and to provide helpful hooks for future change.
For example, I welcome plans to focus more on the outcomes of learning. We’ve long argued for that and worked with the Greater London Authority on it, though the details will be key.
The intention to look at multi-year funding is great too and, while there’s a balance between simplicity and targeting support, it would be good to simplify the current complex funding and accountability arrangements.
The Lifetime Skills Guarantee, focus on apprenticeships, and commitment to increase investment, while already announced, are also really welcome – there’s more to do, but it’s great to be talking about how to invest rather than what to cut.
A point, though, about language. When I worked in government, I was advised not to describe reforms as “radical”, as discussion of this White Paper often has: people would notice if they were, otherwise you’d be over selling.
No White Paper can solve everything, so it’s important the government doesn’t over claim its impact: better to argue there’s a big plan, moving in the right direction.
This White Paper aims to align provision with local economic need and deliver better outcomes.
But how will the new Local Skills Improvement Plans, to be agreed by colleges, employers and others, fit with devolution in parts of England?
What traction will these plans have? Isn’t this what Skills Advisory Panels were meant to do?
Similarly, the White Paper would have benefited from more recognition of the wider benefits of learning (health, citizenship etc) and breadth of provision.
And while there’s lots of talk of employer leadership, I can’t see very much about how we raise their demand for and investment in skills.
Now here are four areas where the White Paper must go further:
It’s great the White Paper puts further education centre stage – there’s lots of positives already in train to shout about, and some interesting new ideas.
But to avoid becoming another footnote in the history of skills policy, we’ll need long-term funding and commitment to more radical action.
Perhaps not a giant leap, but hopefully several steps in the right direction.
By Stephen Evans, chief executive at Learning and Work Institute