The UK Government has recently released its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper. The ambition of the paper and its recognition of the scale of the challenge is to be welcomed, as well as the focus on tackling longstanding disparities in educational outcomes, skills, pay, productivity and wellbeing. Yet, without significant new investment is unclear how these ambitions will be realised.
Our analyses of the white paper
The lack of new investment also needs to be viewed against a backdrop of a decade of funding cuts, many of which have hit deprived communities the hardest. For instance, the IFS have estimated that over the last decade spending on non-education services per resident fell almost twice as much in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived.
The white paper itself sets out 12 key “missions”, one of which is the commitment to increase the number of adults engaged in high-quality skill training with a target to get an additional 200,000 people in England to complete high-quality skills by 2030.
The UK stands out internationally in relatively low levels of adult participation of training, and ensuring enhanced access to skills training across the life course is crucial if we are to see a shift in ‘high wage and high skill economy. Yet, this faces considerable headwinds and needs to be seen in the context of the continued contraction in employer investment in training, alongside a decline in the number of adult learners undertaking skill training, which fell by 42% over the last decade. And despite some recent uplifts set out in the spending review, combined spending on adult education and apprenticeships is still forecast to be 15% below that of a decade ago.
What the white paper says about skills
Overall, on skills, there isn’t much in the white paper that hasn’t already been announced elsewhere, with the paper reiterating various commitments previously set out in the FE White Paper, including placing employers at the heart of the post-16 education, training landscape and better alignment of supply and demand through the rollout of new employer-led Local Skills Improvement Plans.
However, the announcement of a Future Skills Unit is a positive step and hopefully, it will be able to take the lead on advocating overdue changes to skills policy to address skills gaps within sectors and regions. At a local level, the unit will “produce information on local skills demand, future skills needs of business, the skills available in an area and the pathways between training and good jobs.” This type of granular analysis will be critical to the success of the role out of Local Skills Improvement Plans.
Finally, there needs to be more of a focus on the demand side of skills. This includes a pressing need to improve the provision and access to local business support services, to encourage and enable many more employers across regional economies to invest more in the technology, management capability and workforce development required to boost firm-level performance and wages.
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