What the Skills for Jobs white paper means for employers

Jan 28, 2021 | Apprentices & school leaver

Last week the government announced its long awaited white paper on skills. ISE’s Tristram Hooley, explores what it really means for employers.

Government’s publish white papers to set out their intentions for the future. A white paper isn’t a change in the law, but it does signal a government’s intention to drive things forward in a particular direction.

The government published the long-awaited Skills for jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth on Thursday 21 January 2021.

The white paper contains the government’s vision for the future of vocational and technical education, but there are big questions about how visionary it really is.

Tom Berwick of the Federation of Awarding Bodies reflected on the familiarity of much of what is in the white paper, saying:

“This white paper is perhaps not quite as comprehensive as it could have been in terms of covering the range of transformational reforms of post-compulsory tertiary education that the review panel envisaged…Overall, what has been announced today is very much a restatement of what has already been agreed — a useful ‘work in progress.”

But, even though you might have seen some of it before, employers do need to pay attention because the document is full of rhetoric about how important employers are as part of a desire for them to play a bigger role in the education and training system.


What is the white paper trying to achieve?

The over-arching idea in the white paper is that of the lifetime skills guarantee. Rhetorically this is designed to suggest that access to lifelong learning and skills development will be extended in the service of three main policy aims:

  • To increase the availability of skills to the economy and the alignment of education and training with the needs of business. This is often articulated through the idea of putting employers at the heart of the system.
  • To provide a mechanism for ‘leveling up’ and increasing opportunity for all citizens by improving access to learning.
  • To rebalance the education system away from universities and academic pathways and towards vocational and technical education.

In many ways these are all laudable, if not entirely original aims, but the devil is in the detail.


What does the white paper want from employers?

The white paper articulates a strong belief that the education and training system should be closely aligned with the needs of employers:

By putting employer needs at the heart of our reforms we will ensure the UK remains a global leader in attracting international investment and employers, and in doing so support our economy

But, with great power, inevitably comes great responsibility. And so, employers are inevitably being asked to put something back into the education and training system to ensure that it works effectively.

Key asks of employers include:

  • Working with colleges and other local stakeholders to develop Local Skills Improvement Plans to shape the provision offered in local areas;
  • Developing standards (aligned with or equivalent to apprenticeship standards) for all post-16 vocational and technical qualifications;
  • Working more closely with further education colleges;
  • Continuing to offer work experience for T-levels and other vocational qualifications;
  • Increasing engagement with apprenticeships. This is accompanied by incentives to support smaller employers to engage with apprenticeships and some, limited, increases in the flexibility offered.


Issues with the white paper

There is a lot in the white paper that is positive. The government is reasserting the fact that employers should have a say in the education system, that vocational and technical routes should have parity with academic routes and that the system should be properly funded in a way that does not limit access to those without the ability to pay.

These principles are a very good starting point, but there are several issues that will have to be addressed as the government takes these forwards over the next few years:

  • The most substantial proposal in the white paper is the idea of extending the existing higher education loan system to all post-compulsory education. This is highly ambitious, may be difficult to implement and may not drive as substantial a change in behaviour as is implied in the document. Furthermore there are questions as to whether the Treasury has even signed off on this.
  • The white paper asks a lot of employers. In essence a lot of this boils down to spending a great deal more company time sitting on local and sectoral planning and quality bodies. Given employers’ mixed experience of apprenticeship trailblazers it is going to be important to reassure them that this is time well spent.
  • The reforms to the apprenticeship system are very limited. Only a minority of ISE’s 10 evidence based recommendations to improve the apprenticeship system have been engaged with. The paper acknowledges the fact that engagement with apprenticeships has been declining, but the government will have to think bigger if it is going to turn this around.
  • There is also a section suggesting a way forward for careers education and guidance and other support for early career transitions. While there are some positive proposals, it really offers a continuation of the current situation rather than a major improvement in education-to-work transitions. A detailed analysis published by the Career Development Institute highlights some of these problems in more detail.

Overall, the white paper offers us a good starting point for future reforms. But, there is a lot of detail to be worked through and a general lack of ambition. In the current climate where both the education and employment systems are in crisis, we might have hoped for something more visionary.

Further reading

ISE set out recommendations for improving vocational education in two reports:

Plan for the reconstruction of the student labour market

Stability, transparency, flexibility and employer ownership

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