27 Jun 2024

Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy at the AELP, on the general election and future of FE and Skills

Ahead of the General Election, Simon Ashworth outlines his thoughts on the headline FE and Skills policy proposals of the two major parties, and considers the future of the sector into the next parliament.

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What are your thoughts on the Conservative Party's pledge to introduce 100,000 more apprenticeships annually by "cracking down" on "rip off" university degrees?

 "Our aim should be a system which encourages informed choice, so we should be careful about pitching this as apprenticeships versus degrees. However, more investment in apprenticeships is always welcome. £880m is a significant amount, especially as it comes on the back of the removal of co-investment for apprentices under 22, and a government announcement to “guarantee” to meet demand amongst small and medium sized employers for apprenticeship.

 "There’s still more to be done though. There are barriers to apprenticeship growth that goes beyond funding though – including how the Apprenticeship Service operates, a lack of flexibility in standards and the way in which functional skills qualifications acts as an exit requirement. We also we need further thinking on how we can stimulate demand – especially for small and medium sized employers, as well as among young people."

Labour's plan for the apprenticeship system includes reforming the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible 'Growth and Skills Levy', which would enable businesses to spend up to 50 per cent of levy funds on non-apprenticeship training. What do you see as the advantages and/or drawbacks of this proposal? 

"With 98% of the Department for Education (DfE) apprenticeship budget being spent over the last two years, flexibility to spend funds outside of apprenticeships would require greater investment or it would reduce the volume of apprenticeships in the future, which would be a backward step. Enabling businesses to spend up to 50% is also a very high threshold and starting point.

"The current system works on the basis that non-levy payers are funded from levy payer underspend. Put simply the more levy payers spend, the more the non-levy funding is constrained. To give levy payers more flexibility we could see non-levy payers being restricted, by volume, age, level or a range of these. Although we advocate more support for young people, there is a risk this would be a backward step and move away from a system which is accessible to people of all ages and at all levels.

 "uring the General Election campaign, Labour have promised a return for traineeships, which we agreed are the right vehicle to help “on-ramp” young people and add an important route into apprenticeships. Labour have also advocated introducing modularised training to help upskill adults. We think that this could be a great way at ensure existing apprentices maintain competence in sectors where new skills and technologies are appearing, such as AI or retrofit in Construction."

How do you think the next government should reform the FE and skills sector?

"There’s three major ways in which government should prioritising reforming the skills sector: developing a national skills strategy; a more sustainable apprenticeship system; and a more learner centric approach in adult education

 "Firstly, it is vital that we have a long-term national skills strategy. The need to have a joined up and coherent system has been lacking for far too long, the country’s approach has focused too much on the short term.

"Ensuring the apprenticeship system remains employer-led, all age, all level and is sustainable for the long-term. This needs more flexible standards, perhaps 80% core with 20% flexibility, as well as a much more simple, but still independent, end point assessment model.

"Good literacy and numeracy cannot be underplayed, but the next government needs to take a more pragmatic approach on maths and English – not just on apprenticeships where it holds back achievement, but also reverse the damaging changes to the maths and English condition of funding as part of the 16 to 19 study programme requirements. 

"Moving apprenticeships to an employer-led system was a bold and positive move - similarly we think the government should do move to increase choice and put the purchasing choices in the hands of the end user. We would advocate a move to a learner centric approach in adult education - through moving away from arbitrary provider allocations and build on the work on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement. We’d advocate a move to a lifelong learning account - similar to the Liberal Democrats Skills Wallet proposals at the last election."

What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenges in the FE and skills sector facing the next government?

"There is currently real uncertainty about the future of level 3 and below qualifications as a result of the ongoing review, however Labour’s commitment to pause and review is positive.

"Devolution to mayoral combined authorities throughout England has added more complexity for employers and providers. It would be better to have a national system to administer national entitlement, and let local flexibilities be controlled and commissioned locally.

"We’ve already mentioned the long-term sustainability of the apprenticeship system, but balancing the commitment to make the apprenticeship levy more flexible, without reducing the number of apprenticeships is key. This requires incentivising more SMEs and young people, but without disincentivising adults at the same time. However, given most of the apprenticeship programme budget is spent it is vital that we have a much closer link between the amount raised by the Levy and the actual budget set by HM Treasury to ensure demand can be met."

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