Announcements from the Chancellor and the Education Secretary in the last week represent nothing less than a sea change for technical education as investment in skills was prioritised in the Treasury’s ‘Plan for Jobs’ and Gavin Williamson promised ‘a major shift in how we treat further education’ in England in his speech about the FE White Paper.
Short-term fixes were, rightly, the order of the day for the Chancellor’s Summer Statement, with the £2bn Kickstart scheme focused on getting valuable work experience for young people who are most at risk of unemployment this autumn. The less headline-grabbing announcements of extra incentives for firms to take on apprentices, additional funding for level 2 and 3 courses in FE and a massive increase in traineeships indicate that the Chancellor really understands the value of technical education to the economy at a time when significant unemployment looms.
Meanwhile Gavin Williamson’s passionate speech about the forthcoming white paper on further education in England confirmed that the pandemic has not dampened this government’s appetite to prioritise skills for the long-term. Having banged the drum for excellence in skills since I arrived at WorldSkills UK five years ago, it was great to hear the Education Secretary promising to put higher standards at the heart of a reformed technical education system, and promising to build a world-class further education system, based on the best models from around the world.
At WorldSkills UK we are well-placed to feed into this thinking. Thanks to our international outlook, and partnerships with industry we have already been focusing on the UK’s long-term skills needs for a number of years, eager to feed in our unique skills expertise and know-how to help drive up standards in technical education to benefit young students and apprentices throughout the UK. The report we produced with the RSA and FETL ‘Adopting global skills innovations for the UK’ is full of policy lessons which could be useful for the Education Secretary’s plans, citing best practice in Russia, Switzerland, Singapore and Shanghai, where in every case technical education is seen as strategically important to that country’s economic success. With further international case studies coming out this year we stand ready to provide the Government with the information it needs to build a world-class skills system.
In everything we do the emphasis is on standards, quality and improvement because we want young people, whatever their background, to be able to excel. That’s why we are working hard to give young people access to a growing suite of online resources so that they can continue to refine their technical and mindset skills so that they are work-ready for the future. That’s why we are reviewing our skills competitions so that in areas that are critical to the economy, such as digital, we can be confident that we are at the cutting edge and giving young people skills that the country needs. And that’s why we are setting up a Centre of Excellence in partnership with NCFE to share our world-class skills expertise with a range of colleges, to inspire excellence in teaching, learning and assessment to support 40,000 young people reach their full potential.
The announcements last week give me confidence that the Government understands how instrumental technical education can be in making sure we provide opportunities for all, level up our economy and tackle the UK’s longstanding productivity puzzle. As ever, the devil will be in the detail, both in the Chancellors’ short-term fixes and the Education Secretary’s longer-term FE strategy. But we must embrace the challenge because we need high quality skills more than ever: skills to help attract inward investment, skills to power our public services, skills to give all young women and men the opportunity to succeed.
While the FE White Paper will be focused on the English skills system I believe there is an opportunity through our work to help raise standards in technical education in all four nations of the UK and I look forward to working with all of our partners in governments, business and education to make it happen.