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Post-16 education needs comprehensive reform

To put it bluntly, the current arrangements for post-16 education aren’t working well or delivering what’s needed.

And whatever happens in the general election, the new government will need to make changes if it is to meet the needs of 100% of the population.

A whole system change is needed; and at Association of Colleges, we’ve worked with our members and commissioned research to publish a roadmap to delivering a system that works for everyone.

In April, we published our 100% Opportunity report, which provides a framework for how the post-16 education and skills system needs to be organised to make it fairer, more effective and more efficient. There are six parts to this:

  • A national social partnership body
  • An effective system of devolution
  • A young person’s guarantee and demand-led adult funding
  • Mission clarity of schools, colleges, and universities
  • Curriculum and qualifications that reflect national and local needs
  • A reformed apprenticeship levy

Next we have published a suite of 14 policy papers; putting each area of further education (FE) and skills policy under the microscope to give policy makers and influencers a key insight into the challenges faced by colleges and students every single day, and providing detailed recommendations across areas like the curriculum, assessment, SEND and devolution.

It’s worth saying that in parts, our education system is excellent. At every age, stage and level, we can point to high quality early-years, schools, colleges and universities delivering great experiences and outcomes. But in excellence in parts isn’t good enough because it falls short in three ways.

Excellence in parts isn’t good enough because it falls short in three ways. Quote

It’s ineffective, because the system falls short of delivering the outcomes needed by society and the economy. We have huge skills gaps, and as a result, productivity and economic growth have stalled. Research from the National Audit Office shows that the number of skills shortage vacancies has risen from 22% five years ago to 36% today, and employer spending on workforce training per employee is falling from a low base by international standards and is skewed towards better qualified staff. Colleges, on the other hand, have growing waiting lists for training in the sectors with skills gaps, but don’t have the resources to meet the demand.

It’s inefficient, because education funding is distributed very unevenly, with the largest proportion of money funding a relatively short part of the education journey for one part of the population – those accessing HE. A much smaller amount is spent on supporting the education journey of a larger number of people – those accessing FE and apprenticeships. For many, if not most, adults in work, there’s very little funding used to help them access any education or training at all. The average costs per apprentice have more than doubled since the apprenticeship levy was introduced and yet millions of people cannot access training because their employer does not offer apprenticeships.

It’s unfair, because the fact remains that the household and place you grow up in has a major impact on your chances of achieving in our education system. There are significant barriers for those who do not secure good GCSEs at the age of 16 – this currently stands at around a third of all students. New research shows that since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy there are fewer opportunities with small and medium sized enterprises, for young people (below the age of 24), at lower levels (Levels 2 and 3), in regions outside of London and the South East, for new labour market entrants and in skills shortage subjects.

Is this really how we, as a country, want things to continue? No matter which side of the house you sit, it’s obvious that this just is not good enough.

I know that these six changes set out above, and the comprehensive list of specific recommendations in our policy papers, can’t happen overnight. This isn’t something to be rushed through; it requires bold, but carefully planned, reform which is designed through better engagement between government, employers, unions and education institutions. It needs a long-term plan that everyone can believe and trust in and a long term set of performance measures that give confidence that things are improving. We cannot afford more short-term tinkering or new programmes every few years which confuse and hinder progress.

And if you need more convincing, I’ll put it another way: if politicians want to achieve economic growth, improved productivity, social inclusion, more equal outcomes, and a better society, post-16 reform must happen. And soon.

Screenshot 2024 02 20 135450

David Hughes CBE is the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.

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