17 Feb 2024

Peter Aldous MP: The greatest threats to FE and Skills in 2024

We sit down with Peter Aldous MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Further Education and Lifelong Learning to get his take on the key challenges to the FE and skills sector in 2024. Peter shares his insights on underfunding, staff recruitment and retention, inflation, and the ongoing impacts of the cost-of-living crisis.

The ongoing effects of COVID-19, chronic underfunding, and persistent recruitment challenges mean that 2023 has proven to be another difficult year for the FE and skills provision in the UK. In this month’s edition, we sit down with Peter Aldous MP, Chair of the APPG on FE and Lifelong Learning, to look ahead to 2024 to discuss the challenges it may hold for the sector.

Progress to Date

From his Westminster office, and with speculation surrounding a November general election heightening, our conversation with Peter Aldous begins by looking at all that has been achieved in the sector over the past five years.

Aldous points to “the enhanced recognition the sector has gained in recent years” and its crucial role in “levelling-up through embracing artificial intelligence, supporting the green industrial revolution, and addressing skill shortages.”

The APPG Chair also highlights the various initiatives the government has introduced to advance Further Education, such as the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, lifelong learning entitlements, and local skills improvement plans.

Prospects and Predictions

Aldous also expresses optimism regarding the future of FE given that all parties “seem to recognise the sector’s importance.” While approaches between them may vary, he does “not perceive any dramatic ideological disparities,” he says.

The Waveney MP cites the apprenticeship levy as an example where there is a “consensus that it is beneficial but requires review and reform”.  He argues that “if we were to compare the outcomes in a parallel universe, aside from the changes in terminology, the differences might not be as stark as one may expect.”

We discuss what reforms he thought should be made to the levy. He suggests that the government is dissatisfied with the proportion of the levy being allocated to higher-level apprenticeships, such as those at degree-level. “There's a possibility that the government might adjust the levy to discourage employers from investing heavily in these higher-level apprenticeships and instead focus on lower-level ones. From the feedback I've received, this shift in focus seems to be the preferred direction,” he says.

However, Aldous notes that, given it is an election year, “the prospect of reforming the apprenticeship levy remains uncertain. It seems more likely that the finer details of such reforms will be deferred until after the general election.”

Inflation is the Number One Enemy

When asked about the principal risk facing the FE and skills sector, Aldous was certain that it is inflation. “The sector is expected to accomplish more with increasingly limited resources – this is undeniably a challenge.”

He continued, “reflecting on the role colleges have played, they’ve been significantly burdened in the aftermath of COVID-19, and now we might be on the cusp of a second cost-of-living crisis. During the pandemic, colleges took on extra responsibilities, including additional hours for catch-up sessions to support students who had transitioned from schools in dire need of catching up on their studies. Furthermore, colleges have been instrumental in providing essential support to students, who are often those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis.”

Aldous also talks on the issues arising from inflation and underfunding. He says, “there’s a linked issue of staff recruitment and retention within colleges, as the terms of employment are less favourable compared to schools.”

He adds that, “while schools are not without their challenges, the situation in colleges is particularly difficult. This is compounded by the fact that, although support staff received a welcome 10 per cent increase in the national living wage, this is not matched by a corresponding rise in funding.”

Bridging the Talent Gap

He explains that there are notable skills shortages in the FE sector, both in terms of staffing FE institutions themselves and in the various fields that FE supports. This includes areas such as healthcare, where NHS workforce planning is critical, and in sectors like energy and construction.

He cites the example of Sizewell C, where the “involvement of local colleges was clearly evident.” Aldous asserts that there must be a collaborative effort with colleges to train people for the increasingly complex, challenging, and exciting roles that will emerge over these long projects.

To fund these projects, the Conservative MP suggested redirecting funds from the immigration skills charge into additional learning opportunities in these skill shortage areas. He says, “the specific needs will vary regionally, and this is where Local Skills Improvement Plans can play a crucial role in identifying these requirements.”

Aldous argues that the government is invested in addressing the skills gap within the FE sector as this is essential for mitigating skill shortages in other areas of the economy. “It’s evident that the FE sector is at the forefront of these efforts” he says. “Consider the emphasis on green jobs and the emerging employment opportunities in the transition to a more sustainable economy, the NHS Workforce Plan, or the pronounced demand for more house building. All of which require a workforce equipped with the appropriate skills.”

Despite these challenges, the APPG Chair makes clear that funding challenges will persist, noting that the 2021 funding settlement, “which was seen as compensation for years of neglect”, was based on an inflation assumption of 2.2 per cent. “This figure now seems overly optimistic, especially in light of recent events in the Middle East affecting global economic stability,” he says.

Weathering the Storm

We conclude the interview by discussing his views on overcoming the key challenges facing the FE sector. His initial response is simple: “more funding.” Although he recognises that “additional funding may not be forthcoming, necessitating the sector to continue coping in challenging circumstances”, he remained relatively optimistic. “We could manage this,” he says, “but the sector undoubtedly deserves better.”

A more realistic development, which should be considered, is “increased collaboration between FE and higher education institutions. Recognising the mutual benefits of such partnerships could potentially open more opportunities for resources.”

Finally, Aldous stresses the importance of adequately resourcing FE. “The key issue,” he argues “is the perception of FE as the 'Cinderella' of the education system.” He adds: “To borrow a phrase from Robert Halfon, it’s now akin to Cinderella finally attending the ball. We must ensure that FE is provided with resources that are not just an afterthought”. He likens this to “a well-fitting glass slipper, rather than an uncomfortable, makeshift clog.”

As we navigate through an election year with ongoing funding challenges, Aldous’ perspective offers us a pragmatic vision for the sector. While recognising the potential difficulties in securing increased funding, the recognition of FE’s role presents hope for meaningful progress, even in times of uncertainty.

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