FE White Paper 2021: Ideas to Action
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson launched the UK Government’s long-awaited Further Education (FE) White Paper, Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, in January. It has had a mixed reaction from within the FE sector, with some welcoming the recognition it gave to the role of FE and skills and the scope they found in the paper for its development, while others were disappointed that it did not do more to support engagement with people furthest from formal education or employment or to articulate its reforms with other sectors and systems.
The devil, of course, is in the detail, and perhaps more so for this White Paper than for others, given how much remains to be worked out in consultation and delivery. This is why the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) commissioned this collection of essays. We wanted to hear the voices of the deliverers, and gain the perspectives of the sub-sectors that make up the world of FE and skills. Their knowledge will be critical to ensuring the White Paper does not repeat mistakes of the past and that it delivers, in the end, meaningful, workable solutions to the problems we face.
The essays capture the views and insights of a wide range of colleagues, including sector leaders, practitioners and policy and curriculum specialists. They raise many issues with which the Government will have to deal, from the need to increase and stabilise funding to the importance of making sure the reforms add value to what is already there rather than replacing it; from the urgency of doing more to support young people, especially around employment, to the need to redesign the skills system to prioritise and incentivise collaboration over competition.
The essays demonstrate the delivery challenges ahead and the need to think holistically in our response as a sector. There is some promise in the White Paper, as the essays acknowledge. Certainly, it was good to see FE and skills located firmly at the heart of efforts to improve social mobility in Britain. Welcome too were the pledges to establish parity of treatment between FE and Higher Education, and to realise FE’s contribution to economic growth and enhanced productivity. There were positive interventions in the form of the ‘flexible lifetime guarantee’ and ‘local skills improvement plans’, acknowledged in a number of the essays, though many questions about how these will be delivered remain unanswered. I also welcome the emphasis on education for decent employment and the recognition of how important this is in giving people freedom, agency and independence.
However, in some respects, the White Paper did not go far enough, as the essays highlight. There was no pledge to reverse the funding cuts of the past decade, no fresh new ideas about ‘levelling up’ and no sign of a move away from the narrow focus on funding for job skills and employability as ‘wider’ FE dwindles. Instead, the White Paper continues with putting ‘employers at the heart of post-16 skills’, while the question of how to increase employer engagement and investment in staff development and training, where we lag well behind our European partners and competitors, was quietly brushed under the carpet.
Of course, the employers’ voice is important and it is good to see their role brought into the foreground, as my colleagues recognise. However, while employers’ engagement is critical I am not sure they should be in the driving seat of skills policy. Even if they could spare the time and resource to embrace this role, I am not sure the timings are right. With so many employers currently preoccupied with closure, redundancy and bankruptcy, not to mention Brexit and our still emerging trading relationship with the EU, it seems unrealistic to ask more of them in terms of designing courses and curricula. The White Paper needed to be just as interested in what learners and their communities want and need, and in how the outcomes of skills partnerships can be grounded in local democracy. I was pleased to see these themes picked up in the essays.
Another concern with the White Paper was that there is, on the whole, a lack of articulation with other areas of policy such as devolution, and very little sense of how these reforms will complement – or make redundant – the existing policy architecture such as Skills Advisory Boards and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Nor is there much sense of how the Department for Education will work with other departments, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure the agenda is delivered in a joined-up way that makes sense on the ground. Just as fundamentally, there is not enough on how the reforms in the White Paper will link to reforms in other parts of the education system, especially universities and schools.
Hopefully, the White Paper marks the beginning of a conversation, for it is critical that the whole sector has its say and that each part of the sector is heard. That is why FETL commissioned these essays because we know the Government does not yet have all the answers. The Government, we must hope, knows this too and is willing to embrace the insights and ideas that these essay contributors and others can offer. After all, delivering the promise of the White Paper and making it work best for FE and the communities it serves is all our business. It starts here.
Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership