This year’s AELP National Conference in London took place against a backdrop of inflationary pressures weighing heavily on the sector, bringing together policymakers, experts and providers alike to explore how the sector can continue to provide the conference tagline: skills for a positive future.

Gateway Qualifications was pleased to be a workshop sponsor and exhibitor at the conference, and here are a few of our top takeaways from the conference.

Funding band uplifts

There was some positive news when the Skills Minister, Robert Halfon MP, used his keynote speech to announce long-awaited and much-needed funding band uplifts for some apprenticeship standards. However, delegates questioned why confirming these uplifts had taken so long. Many felt plenty more standards also need an uplift if apprenticeship delivery is to remain viable.

There were also a number of speakers who discussed potential flexibilities for the existing Apprenticeship levy, with Toby Perkins MP, the Shadow Minister for Skills, outlining the Labour Party’s plan to review the apprenticeship levy system to enable it to fund non-apprenticeship delivery such as technical qualifications. There was a concern that this may negatively impact apprenticeship participation, particularly on the budget available for non-levy paying SMEs, yet employers want this flexibility. Perkins said that Labour would ensure there was no reduction in budget for these non-levy paying SMEs and that Labour’s model would ringfence a minimum of 50% of the levy to be spent on Apprenticeships.

Politics, paralysis and partnership

Despite, as one speaker highlighted, there being potentially another 18 months to a general election, the consensus was that the sector could expect no significant changes to policy until after this election. This policy paralysis is seeing two clear lines of travel starting to appear for the sector, both dependent on the election result. Consequently, providers, Awarding Organisations and everyone in the sector are having to prepare dual strategies to cover both potential outcomes.

Against this backdrop, David Hughes, CEO of the Association of Colleges, issued a rallying call to the sector to come together in partnership to tackle the bigger issue of a lack of funding by taking the fight to the Treasury. This resonated with the audience and subsequent speakers highlighted that the sector is stronger together and there is a need to combine forces to lobby for further funding that the sector deserves.

Qualification reforms not yet understood

A key point of discussion for some delegates was on the reforms made to Level 3 and below qualifications. The Department for Education (DfE) has a plan to restructure provision to align with national Technical or Vocational outcomes. Although reforms have started at Level 3, those for Level 2 and below will not begin until 2024/2025. It was apparent that the knowledge of these changes was not as extensive as anticipated.

To ensure continued delivery, providers must adjust the provision to meet the new criteria. However, there is uncertainty in the sector as the shadow skills minister, Toby Perkins, hinted that the proposed reforms by the DFE might not be wholly implemented if Labour wins the next general election. As the level of change is yet to be defined, providers are unsure of the extent of adaptation required.

Artificial Intelligence and Digital Skills

Another interesting area of discussion in the keynotes and workshops was the impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having and will have on the education sector. Government agencies, awarding organisations and training providers are all grappling with this without clear answers. This month, the DfE has issued a call for evidence on how AI is being used in education settings and the risks and opportunities it provides.

It was also clear from some speakers that there are still many learners who are lacking the digital skills they need for the current workplace, let alone the skills they may need to make the most of future developments like AI. During a panel discussion of employers two groups were highlighted as needing support with their digital skills: younger people who can navigate personal devices and social media well, but who need support to transfer their digital skills to the workplace; and older members of the workforce who need support to adapt to the ongoing digitalisation of workplaces.

There have been welcome funding uplifts announced earlier in the year to support digital upskilling. Still, it was worrying that most of those attending the Gateway Qualifications workshop “How the recent adult funding boost can help deliver a more digitally literate workforce” were unaware of these changes. As the workshop highlighted, there are many opportunities for providers to deliver digital skills, from basic skills through Essential Digital Skills qualifications and the new Digital Functional Skills qualifications, through level 2 study programmes and Level 3 free courses for jobs to adult learner loan funded Level 5 opportunities to prepare learners for employment in the number one digital skills shortage area of coding and software development.

Pathways to employment, apprenticeships and beyond

Workpays, a provider based in the East Midlands, shared with their peers in our second workshop, how they support and progress learners using flexible qualifications to pick and mix units to meet the varied needs of their learners. The hints and tips shared in the workshop clearly resonated with delegates as there was a lot of interest in our new pathways leaflets:

Get your copy of our progression pathways guides

Providers and other stakeholders enjoyed the Gateway Qualifications exhibition stand and finding their own pathway through our “Wall” game with our own @Chris Deeprose doing a very good Danny Dyer! Congratulations to Anne at Activate Learning for being the top scorer and champagne winner.

Finally, on a more literal note, one of the best takeaways at the conference was surely the ice cream rolls being freshly prepared for delegates on the AELP exhibition stand – absolutely delicious!