Following its announcement in the Queen’s Speech, the government introduced the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill 2021-22 (the Bill) for its first reading on 18 May 2021 (see here). The Bill aims to lay the foundation for the future reforms proposed in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, and to rebuild a new educational landscape following the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of this, a Lifetime Skills Guarantee is to be introduced, along with general improvements to the post-16 education system. Of particular interest to employers are the following new measures:
- a new power for the Secretary of State for Education to designate employer representative bodies to lead and shape Local Skills Improvement Plans; and
- further obligations on educators and training providers to cooperate with the employer representative bodies, both to help develop these plans and, once in place, assist in reviewing and improving them.
“Plans for Jobs”
The White Paper was produced as part of the government’s “Plans for Jobs” scheme and focuses on the role of further and technical education. Many of the proposals are based on the German and Dutch Chamber of Commerce models and aim to increase communication between employers and education providers. The Bill is just one part of the wider skills reform agenda, and the government is consulting separately on other aspects of the White Paper.
“Local Skills Improvement Plans”
At the centre of these proposals is the introduction of the “Local Skills Improvement Plans”, to which the Bill is intended to provide a statutory underpinning. These plans are intended to give local employers a larger role in shaping reforms so that local labour needs can be met. The plans ask those designated to do so to summarise the skills, capabilities and expertise that they believe are needed, or will be needed in the future, in their local area. This new role will be welcomed by many employers, particularly at a time where the job market is diversifying, and businesses are looking to rebuild themselves, as the economy re-emerges post-COVID-19.
Apprenticeships and technical education
Apprenticeship schemes have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Data suggests that those starting new schemes dropped by 52.3% from 2019 to 2020, with young people aged 16-19 suffering the worst with a 73.2% drop. In an attempt to kick-start this labour market, the White Paper also suggests a number of improvements to the Apprenticeship schemes. These include changes to make funding more accessible, as well as an emphasis on front-loading training.
Of particular interest to employers will be the additional functions granted within the Bill to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (the Institute). These new functions will enable the Institute to define and approve new categories of technical qualifications, relating to employer-led standards and occupations, and to have an oversight role in the technical education on offer for each occupational route. This should give an employer-led organisation more control in this area.
The introduction of the Local Skills Improvement Plans, whilst commendable in principle, somewhat lacks teeth. Organisations are not obligated to rigorously stick to their local plan, rather to “have regard” to it. With this in mind, the Bill also provides for the Secretary of State to keep a list of those providers who are complying with their wider obligations. Certain funding authorities will not be permitted to enter into arrangements with those not on the list. At this stage, it is unclear to what extent this list will be used to encourage compliance with Local Skills Improvement Plans, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on going forward.
The Bill was sent for its second reading yesterday, on 15 June 2021. In its current state, it is difficult to predict the impact of the Bill and its White Paper counterpart. Post-16 education is an area which has been requiring attention for a number of years, and this has only been exacerbated further by the pandemic. Increased engagement between education providers and employers is a step in the right direction, and should give employers better scope to mould post-16 education in order to meet their needs. The National Education Union has, however, raised concerns about the Bill. It suggests that “a focus on lifetime skills is important and necessary but for this to become a reality funding and support need to be put in place.” It remains to be seen whether this funding will follow, and indeed what impact the Bill might have on localised skills in future.