Functional Skills: what did party conferences say about education?

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Now that the political party season is over and we look forward to the elections next May, what conclusions can we draw from their announcements and relative silence on education policy?
There was very little said about FE and its role in upskilling adults and young people. In fact there was little about education from either major party and in fact the new Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan was used as a spokesperson for issues around defection and resignation.
Labour confirmed their policy of introducing technical degrees, as well as the tech bacc with a view that vocational pathways could start at age 14, rather than the focus on academic studies favoured by the current government.
All major parties made a lot of noise about apprenticeships. The Tories said they want an increase in the numbers of starts and have set a target to deliver three million apprenticeships over the next parliament, an average of 600,000 a year. It is estimated that 510,000 people started an apprenticeship in 2012-13 which in itself was a huge rise from 2009-10, when only 278,000 people began one.
Labour’s plan for apprenticeships is longer-term. They intend to have the number of under-25 apprentices in England increase so that the number of starts is equal the number of young people going to university by 2025. How many is that? Undergraduate starts for young people in 2010-11, were about 320,000, so their target seems less ambitious. However, Labour also wants all of those apprenticeships to be advanced (Level 3) programmes with a minimum duration of two years. Of those under-25 apprentices, only about 100,000 are at that level now. So this will be a big undertaking, as in recent years, youth apprentices have proved to be the hardest group to increase.
Lib Dems call themselves the ‘party of opportunity for your people’ and having lost the battle to withdraw student loans for graduates they have fought in Government to give more young people the chance to get on in life in other ways. They claim that £85m of funding to extend the Apprenticeship Grants for Employers Scheme, and £20m to support apprenticeships up to postgraduate level (i.e. degree and masters level apprenticeships) is due to their efforts to persuade government that apprenticeships are a worthy and important part of the strategy to train adults and young people in the workplace. The Lib Dems have not set a target for apprenticeships for the next Parliament but it would be safe to assume they are would endorse increasing numbers.
Given the results of the by-election in Clacton, we can’t dismiss the impact of UKIP when considering the policies of a new government from next May. They don’t seem to have made any announcements on apprenticeships, but given their commitment to improving skills I don’t think they would block ambitious targets.
The targets announced by both Labour and the Tories are extremely challenging. Growth has already slowed since the introduction of Functional Skills, the rules regarding employment status and the minimum stay. Reaching either target will require more effort, extra funding and a policy change. New employers and employees will need to be found. The additional apprenticeships will be harder to deliver than the existing ones. Changes in the pipeline which will channel funding through employers, whilst ensuring they make a financial contribution, coupled with reforms to the frameworks and the introduction of a GCSE ‘C or above’ as an entry requirement (already due to be implemented for childcare from 2015) or on-programme requirement, are estimated to halve the number of existing starts, let alone increase them.
There was some reference to how this growth would be financed from the Tories. They will remove job seekers allowance from 18-21 year olds. However, given that the SFA is currently piloting training in English and maths for under 25 years as a requirement of claiming this benefit it would seem this aspect needs some more thought if the carrot is withdrawn.
Apart from the noise around apprenticeships, the huge turnaround was that Functional Skills are set to return to government favour with Skills Minister Nick Boles having revealed plans to make the qualifications “legitimate, valid, respected and admired”. The qualifications, which aim to equip learners with basic skills in English, maths and ICT, have increasingly been seen as mere “stepping stones” towards GCSEs by some, including former Skills Minister Matthew Hancock. They were actually due to be removed as a requirement for apprentices in favour of GCSEs from 2017. But Mr Boles described Functional Skills as “important” when he appeared at an FE Week fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, and pledged to work with Ofqual on improving elements of the qualification, including the branding. When he was reminded of previous government attempts to get colleges to offer “GCSE or nothing,” Mr Boles said emphatically “Well, now I am saying it’s both.” He added: “We need to work on making Functional Skills a legitimate, valid, respected, admired currency for people who have a slightly different way their brain is wired. It’s probably as simple as that. The specific practical step is that I have asked Ofqual in my first meeting with them to do a formal review of Functional Skills, to look at what’s in them, what they think of them, but also to give us some advice on the branding of them.” and, just in case you thought he was misguided and Department for Education might try to close down this approach, he has continued to argue for this change in stakeholder meetings.
Mr Boles re-emphasised government policy which demands that those who get a D grade in GCSE English or maths must re-sit the qualification, but added: “If you’ve done worse than that, maybe what it’s telling us is that the whole way a GCSE is constructed is just never really going to sell it to this person. “That’s why Functional Skills are so important.”
As expected the great and good were in the press breathing a huge sigh of relief that, at last, there was someone with some common sense in a positon of influence who recognised that the ‘one size fits all approach of GCSE is like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It may be that, at last, a minister is actually taking notice of a commissioned report that is contrary to current government policy. A few days before the conference Members of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee rejected GCSEs as the only qualification by which attainment in numeracy and literacy should be judged. They supported the recommendation from the BIS enquiry that adults should be given options for studying English and maths. The chair of the select committee Adrian Bailey was adamant that the issue is about getting adults confident enough to seek help to improve their skills and this required a national campaign and a qualification that would be relevant.
And so, will we see the Gremlins(do you remember that campaign?) resurrected as the one clear policy Nick Bowles as the Minister for Skills can initiate before the election date is announced?

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