Post-conference analysis

As the dust (or glitter) settles on conference season, it is becoming clear that Further Education (FE) and the skills agenda have been established as a key political battleground in the run up to the next general election. The Conservative Party has staked great claim in this space, with the Prime Minister focusing a considerable portion of his conference speech to announce education policy plans.

This year saw the first Skills Hub at both conferences, which the St Martin’s Group was part of it – the Hub was hosted by the Future Skills Coalition of which SMG is a programme partner. The Skills Hub saw organisations from across the FE and Skills Sector join to present, discuss and debate policy. The Skills Hub played a central role in raising the prominence of skills and FE at both conferences.

Here we reflect on the announcements at both Conservative and Labour Party Conferences and the implications of these developments for the sector.

Conservative Party Conference

At the Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, pitched his ambitions to the country, trying to set himself apart from his four predecessors and the last “30-year political status quo”.

In this vein, Sunak announced some landmark, if controversial policies, on health, infrastructure and education. His education policy announcements amounted to significant reforms to education in England, building on a legacy of education reforms which Sunak professed to be ‘proudest’ of. The Advanced British Standard (ABS) was the centrepiece of his announcements. This would be a move towards a baccalaureate system, which would expand the curriculum 16–18-year-olds learn from and attempt to bring parity of esteem between academic and technical learning.

The ABS would merge A Levels and T Levels and allow students to choose from a mixture of academic and technical subjects, and it will replace all other forms of non-apprenticeship qualifications. They would study five subjects, instead of three, and they would ‘major’ in some, studying them in more depth, and ‘minor’ in others. The reforms will also see a reduction in the number of technical subjects available; these subjects will be based on standards set by employers and the IfATE. The aim is to simplify the system, focus on quality, and ensure the academic and technical pathways are equitable.  

In a recently published written ministerial statement from the Secretary of State for Education, the policy was fleshed out a little further and included an announcement of a £600 million investment over the next two years to lay the groundwork for the ABS.

This money will go towards doubling the rates of the Levelling Up Premium and expanding it to cover all FE colleges, up to £100 million each year. All teachers who are in the first five years of their career, teaching at an FE college or a disadvantaged school, teaching STEM or subjects in short supply, will be eligible for up to £6,000 tax free payments. There will also be £150 million each year for students who do not achieve above a grade 4 in English and maths GCSEs. The Government is also committing to investing in English and maths for every post-16 apprentice who hasn’t achieved a Level 2 qualification by uplifting the funding rates, so they match the Adult Education Budget. There will also be an additional £60 million for maths teaching and £40 million for the Education Endowment Foundation to expand their post-16 work.

Reaction from the sector on the ABS has been mixed, with school leaders criticising the timing and scope of the announcement for not addressing current problems within the sector, but welcomed the widening of the curriculum and attempt to bring parity between academic and technical education. Meanwhile, David Hughes, CEO of the Association of Colleges, welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement that the government would increase funding for FE colleges and increase investment for staff pay.  

Although the written ministerial statement sets out specific investments that begin carving out the path towards the delivery of the ABS, this is a long-term plan that won’t come into action for a decade.

Labour Party Conference

At Labour Party Conference, whilst there were fewer concrete policy announcements, there were enough to signal the direction the party wants to travel on skills and FE. Labour’s plans centre around improving skills training so that it meets the demands of local economies.

Specialist Technical Skills Colleges have been announced as the silver bullet of Labour’s plans to transform further education and ‘unlock’ opportunity across the country. However, what advantages colleges will receive from these transformations is unclear at this point.

Skills England, the new expert body previously announced by Labour, will play an important role in the development of the specialist colleges by assessing the bids from colleges to ensure local skills plans address national strategic priorities to grow the economy and re-skill workers.

Additionally, under Labour, local authorities will work more closely with businesses to ensure that skills and training provision is more closely aligned with the needs of local businesses. Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) will be repurposed by Labour to help FE colleges transform into specialist colleges. Universities will also be given greater responsibility in the development of LSIPs.

Labour’s proposals will further localise skills policy, by strengthening connections between local authorities, universities, and local businesses. Technical skills colleges could address the current skills gap that plagues the economy, but further details are needed for the sector to rest assured that this proposal will be a silver bullet for the FE sector, especially as recruitment challenges remain a significant barrier to technical education.    

Key battleground

As further education and skills policy is shaping up to be a key battleground, we hope to see firmer commitments from both parties that will lead to meaningful impact the sector. Long-term planning is needed, but not at the expense of today’s learners and employers. There are significant opportunities to take parts of our system that work and transform areas that are weaker.

We welcome the increased attention to further education and skills at both party conferences. It signals a serious assessment and reflection on the value of improving our skills system and creating an education system that works for all, delivers for employers and increases economic growth.