With just over a week until the country goes to the polls in the general election, representatives from organisations across the skills sector came together in London for the AELP National Conference.

Because of the imminent election, the elephant in the room, or perhaps not in the room, was the absence from the agenda of the usual raft of government agencies and politicians. None of the main parties were able to find time to take away from the campaign trail to speak to the conference – and with the somewhat depressing figures from Public First on how far down the electorate’s priorities Further Education is, it’s perhaps not surprising.

The Skills means growth paradox

The conference tagline “Skills means growth” was aptly chosen, echoing comments by Gateway Qualifications CEO, Carol Snape, in a recent article in FE Week.

Unfortunately, this message doesn’t seem to be getting through to policymakers or the public. In their keynote addresses, both Mike Crowhurst of Public First and Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute, highlighted some depressing statistics.

First, Mike Crowhurst showed some pre-manifesto polling showing that Further Education lags behind primary and secondary education and university in the public’s education priorities.
On the positive front, however, Crowhurst highlighted that there is good support for what the sector does but less knowledge about who is doing it. He encouraged conference delegates to focus on talking about the impact and the growth that skills lead to.

More worryingly, Stephen Evans launched the Learning and Work Institute’s “Blueprint for Change” by highlighting the impact that falls in both government (down 20% since 2010) and employer (26% fall since 2005) investment in skills are having. leading to seven million lost opportunities with the number of adults improving their level of qualifications almost halving since 2010.

Bidding farewell to the Adult Education Budget (AEB)

As the sun sets on the AEB, to be replaced by the Adult Skills Fund, there was standing room only at the Gateway Qualifications workshop, From AEB to ASF: What providers need to know. Commercial Director Paul Saunders was joined by Stuart Allen from SCL and Simon Ashworth from AELP to discuss the changes and the opportunities and challenges they provide.

 On the positive side, there are significant funding uplifts for some sectors, but there is concern that, with no additional funding in the pot, there could be a reduction in the number of learners benefitting.

If you missed the workshop or weren’t able to attend the conference, AELP is running it again as a free-to-attend webinar at 10am on 5th July: AELP Webinar: From AEB to ASF – What Providers Need to Know – Sponsored by Gateway | AELP

Register for AELP webinar

Regulatory red tape

There is a growing concern over the increasing regulatory and administrative burden on providers, and AELP has launched a call for evidence to help demonstrate the cost of these to sector. One example cited in the discussion was that the implementation of the digital apprenticeship service, which has inadvertently increased administrative tasks, rather than reducing them

Digital Skills still key

A strong emphasis was placed on the necessity of digital skills for organisational growth and productivity. The conference also explored future directions in enhancing digital skills within learning. Ensuring learners themselves have the digital skills necessary to access innovative solutions will be crucial, especially for those from digitally deprived backgrounds.

Skills and Grills

After the business of the first day it was great to relax for the evening in the warmth of the new Skills and Grills event – gone was the black-tie formality of previous years, replaced with Hawaiian shirts and an informal evening with colleagues from across the sector. From settling scores with games of table tennis or cornhole, to being entertained by live performances from Access Creative students and close up magic, or just enjoying a drink courtesy of drink sponsor Trainsure, the new format certainly proved a success.

Next week, next government, next challenge

Inevitably there were a lot of assumptions and uncertainty about the future. At least it won’t be long until there is a degree more certainty about the uncertainty as the next government is formed.

The consensus was that the sector would like to see more flexibility and increased funding investment from the government to allow the sector to do what it does best and respond to the diverse needs of learners in diverse sectors and diverse geographies. There was also talk of a worrying increase in the number of those classed as NEET (not in education employment or training), and this will undoubtedly be a challenge for the next government and the sector to address.

Former Skills Minister, Rober Halfon, offered his reflections as he leaves parliament at the election. Advising any incoming Skills Minister to work with the AELP, he reflected on the progress made with apprenticeships and how the Levy had helped change the culture around apprenticeships. Quoting Sir Michael Barber, he urged that most important thing is to continue what’s been begun with apprenticeships, and that there is still a way to go to change the culture.