The Future of Skills

Last week, the Minister for Skills, Alex Burghart MP, delivered a speech at Policy Exchange on the need for a highly skilled nation. As part of this the minister set out his vision to ensure opportunity is spread evenly across the country – with skills that meet the needs of local economies and employers – and spoke of how the great work of the further education (FE) sector is vital to delivering this.

Representatives from The St Martin’s Group attended the event, which can be watched back in full here, but we have also provided a summary of Minister Burghart’s main points below, as well as an overview of recent policy announcements and the Department for Education’s (DfE) ambitions for the sector. As part of this, we were delighted to hear the minister reaffirm his commitment to nurturing a high-quality skills ecosystem across the country, and welcome his comments on how apprenticeships and technical education can provide competitive alternatives to university.

The importance of high-quality skills

Minister Burghart argued that our ability to nurture high quality skills in our country will be essential to our prosperity, sharing he has never seen such huge demand for skills in his lifetime. There are currently 1.3 million vacancies in the UK, which the minister attributed to a combination of economic growth, Brexit and Covid.

In the six months since commencing his role, the minister has seen employers who were previously dependent on cheap, skilled, foreign labour deal with shortages. Both the private and public sector must be driven by employer needs, as it’s vital we have enough social workers, teachers, social workers, nurses, and civil servants, to name a few. Consequently, reforms being driven through by the DfE are going to make the voice of employers ‘absolutely central’ to the skills agenda.

Further, in 2017, the Department reformed apprenticeships to ensure the 640 standards reflected the needs of employers, and in the last few years has introduced a new golden standard for technical qualifications (T Levels), which are designed in partnership with employers. Having just finished the 5th term of T Levels, colleges are beginning to see how employers are viewing them as vehicles to deliver the skills pipeline and trial prospective workers.

Responding to local needs

A key theme of the speech was an emphasis on being responsive and sensitive to local demand, with employer-representative bodies (ERBs) handed responsibility to set local skills priorities and producing plans which will help harness the skills of people to deliver the infrastructure of tomorrow – driven forward by excellent FE colleges.

Friday 1st April saw the announcement of the Strategic Development Fund, which will provide funding for colleges to collaborate, in addition to £1.5 billion over the course of this parliament to reinvigorate FE. Since then, a further round of FE capital transformation funding was announced, with £400 million up for grabs across 62 colleges in England.

A regional approach is the way forward and initiatives like Media City in Salford or BP and Redcar & Cleveland College’s collaboration in Teesside, demonstrate the power of regional frameworks to enhance the reputation of an area and deliver prosperity – what might be coined as ‘levelling up’.

Demystifying and strengthening FE

One of Minister Burghart’s overarching missions is to ‘simplify the current qualification system to demystify it for learners’. He acknowledged that reforms might prove disruptive, which is why they were delayed for a year, and stressed that ‘together we can work together to make it an even better offer’. Moreover, he shared how impressed he has been over the past six months by the ‘energy, innovation and entrepreneurialism’ of colleges and leaders, and thanked them for their patience during these new initiatives.

In a similar vein, this desire to deliver a more straightforward and purposeful system runs through the review of Level 2 qualifications, which is consulting upon more than 8,000 qualifications approved for students aged 16 and above. The goal is simple, Minister Burghart pledged: to ensure we have qualifications designed with employers which will give students the skills needed by society and the economy.

Apprenticeships can be a compelling alternative to university, providing learners with invaluable networking opportunities and the opportunity to ‘learn while you earn’. We’ve already seen apprenticeships grow in popularity and to this end, Minister Burghart referenced an ‘extraordinary’ statistic shared by UCAS, which showed that almost half of applicants said they would be interested in apprenticeships. This demonstrates a clear shift in the perception of post-16 study.

Further, historically, education has been assessed by a set of ‘rather basic proxies’ such as university progression or NEET figures.This prompted the DfE to set up a unit for Future Skills as data must be used to inform outcomes: ‘I want students to know what happened to people like them who chose a similar course, I want providers to better evidence the brilliant work they do, and I want Government to have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t’, Minister Burghart said.