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Skills, schools and levelling up

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Today the Department for Education trailed some of the major measures on education and skills that will be announced in the levelling up white paper.

There is little disagreement on the thrust of policy, described by the Secretary of State as empowering more school children and adults “to gain the knowledge and skills needed to unleash their potential”’.

The jury is out on the promised boost to training and skills opportunities for adults until we see the detailed figures. But early analysis suggests that this will involve fairly modest increases in participation on existing programmes and nowhere near the scale of ambition on skills that is needed.

Many of the proposed reforms are also focused on a new programme of structural changes to schools and colleges. Instead the focus should be on boosting funding and resources that are to the benefit of all young people, and especially those from our most disadvantaged communities.


The DfE press release talks of a new ‘skills mission’ involving targeting 200,000 more people for training, including 80,000 more in areas with the lowest skills levels. As part of this the DfE says there will be an additional £550m spent on the relatively new Skills Bootcamp training programmes.

These proposals lack ambition and go nowhere near enough to countering recent training trends which show that the scale of the skills challenge requires a much more radical approach than this. Cuts to adult skills funding has decimated education and training opportunities delivered by colleges and training providers in recent years. For example, since 2014/15 the number of adults benefitting each year has fallen from 2.6m to 1.6m.

The TUC is calling on the government for a much more expansive skills offer, including a new right to retrain that would open up training opportunities to all workers and those needing help to get back into work. This new right should be incorporated into lifelong learning accounts and accompanied by new workplace rights, including a new right to paid time off for learning and training for all workers. A package of measures along these lines is urgently needed to help workers transition as the economy and society undergo transformational change, including the move to net zero and the legacy of the pandemic.

The announcement today that there will be a new Future Skills Unit to boost strategic planning on skills is a very modest start and should be developed further to get employers and unions round the table with government through a new National Skills Taskforce. The government should also review its puzzling and counter-productive decision to cut the grant for the Union Learning Fund - TUC research shows this will reduce the number of adults taking up learning and training.

More institutional change

Institutional restructuring in our school and college sector, once again, is a common theme of today’s announcement. Most controversially there is a move to develop new elite sixth forms based on the free school model and to force more local authority schools to join multi-academy trusts.

Initial views from key stakeholders have expressed major concerns about renewed reliance on promoting academies and free schools as the solution. The Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, is quoted as saying said he “would question what evidence there is for the need for new ‘elite sixth forms’ in our education system.”

The General Secretary of the NAHT trade union representing school leaders, Paul Whiteman, makes a similar point. He highlights that the announcement appears to fall short of what schools and communities really need and instead “the government appears to have once again reached for simplistic solutions linked to structures and targets”.

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