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Opportunities for people and skills through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee

Brenda McLeish CEO, Learning Curve Group

26 Nov 2020.

The recent announcement about the extension to the furlough scheme was welcomed with open arms by business leaders. As further lockdown restrictions come into force, the Prime Minister has made it clear that they can’t protect every job, and people have already faced redundancy and businesses and individuals are sadly suffering.

Alongside this announcement, The PM outlined the Government’s plan for recovery post-Covid, detailing a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ which would support our economy and our people to gain the skills they need to succeed in employment. The scheme sets out to ensure adults without an A level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free, fully funded course and discussions are ongoing to establish which courses will be available for funding. Announcements are set to be made before the end of the year and I, alongside many of my FE colleagues, wait with anticipation to commence planning delivery to give as many people as possible access to the funds.

It’s not just which courses are going to be on offer that’s important but who is going to be accessing them. The Office for National Statistics shows a distinct North/South divide when it comes to the amount of 25-64 years olds without A-Level or equivalent qualifications - Bradford, Mansfield and Burnley show over half of their populations don’t have the essential skills (59%, 56.1% and 56% respectively) versus Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton’s 22.1%, 24.8% and 25.8%. And that’s just a sample - the map below is a great visual representation of the skills gap that is apparent across the country and specifically in the north. This is by no way a means of showing how hard done to the north is, but a way to show the valuable opportunity we have to get the entire country on a level playing field.

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Source: ONS, Annual Population Survey, 2019. Calculations are based on the assumption that all those who currently do not have a NVQ3+ qualifications could qualify for the scheme, including those in the ‘NVQ other’ category and those with ‘trade qualifications’.

Centre for Cities, a leading think tank dedicated to improving the UK’s economy describes some fabulous, additional initiatives that are needed alongside; aimed at improving take-up of training and creating jobs. They say “research shows the cost of training is only one of the barriers preventing people from participating in adult education – maintenance costs, as well as time constraints and lack of confidence all play against lifelong learning” and I couldn’t agree more. Learning Curve Group delivers qualifications to some of the most hard to reach individuals in society and the extra support we put in place to help them reach their goals shows the need for additional funding as training providers can’t do it all. From creche facilities to travel and digital accessibility, a small step for some is a scary mountain to climb for others. Our learners often report an increase in confidence after studying with us and it's not just the qualification that they achieve, it’s often their first foray into structure and what they could expect from employment. We had over 30k expressions of interest to study one of our online courses over lockdown 1.0, with qualifications in mental health accounting for over a third. There is no doubt that the partnerships we built with colleges to support the funding of these qualifications and make them accessible to those most in need of them made a positive impact on the overall mental health of our learners at a time that loneliness, seclusion and overwhelm was prevalent.

It’s also essential to ensure immediate accessibility of training for those who want to reskill into other sectors. Transferable soft skills between sectors like hospitality and social care take individuals halfway there, but fundamental, base knowledge of a new industry will set them apart from others and on a path to success. Similarly, it’s also essential that the Lifetime Skills Guarantee comes with funding flexibilities. There are individuals across the country already qualified to level 3 in sectors that can no longer provide an income - travel and tourism, hospitality and events being the sectors that come to mind straight away. How can we support those individuals into a new career no matter the prior attainment of a level 3 qualification?

I think most of my FE colleagues would agree when I say the desire to learn from learners is there, the barrier we must all overcome together is accessibility. Our main delivery models must remain online, but we must also be mindful of different learning styles. Whilst a good online service must be an option, we must make face to face learning accessible and safe, so we don’t exclude those suffering from digital poverty. We must be agile and do what is right for our learners. I’m exceptionally proud of how LCG, and the colleges we provide learning resources and online learning platforms to, continue to support our learners to reach their goals, even through the pandemic.

Lastly, patience - the long-term impact of the guarantee will only be visible in the medium to longer term. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves how can we support unemployed individuals now, as we go through winter? We’ve made great waves with the recently announced apprenticeship grants and Kickstart scheme. LCG are an approved gateway organisation and have had 100% of their applications approved to date and I’m so proud of the team for making this happen. They mobilised at the drop of a hat and pulled together a support package that truly transforms lives.

All in all, the premise of the lifetime skills guarantee is fabulous but the proof will be in the pudding. We need the right qualifications alongside the right additional support to make the scheme accessible for those who are eligible to use it.

This blog is part of NCFE’s series of Go the Distance thought leadership pieces. You can read more here.