A new legal landscape to deliver better post-16 education

The Skills for Jobs White Paper which led to Levelling Up Bill and Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 demonstrate the UK government’s commitment to effectively tackling the skills shortage and helping deliver a workforce that is fit for the future, with equal opportunities for all adult learners to prosper across the UK.

It is placing employers at the heart of the skills education system with an overhaul of the rules around funding and accountability for colleges and other post-16 education providers. The bill forms part of the broader ambition to ‘level up’ in the UK, transforming post-16 education to ensure more equality of access to excellent quality training that meets the needs of local employers everywhere, resulting in better workplace outcomes for businesses and employees. There will be more funding for skills to support the green economy. The aim is to ensure more people have access to the high quality training to help them get better jobs, and ensure FE providers and local communities can better align resources to properly support businesses and the UK economy.

Courses designed for local needs

The bill places increased legal requirements on providers to work with employers to develop training plans that meet the needs of businesses in the local area, ensuring a more relevant skills development programme and higher employability, post-study.

It also gives the Secretary of State more powers over the FE and skills sector, designating what constitutes an appropriate Employer Representative Body (ERB), that will be required to collaborate effectively with providers, the ability to define what effective collaboration will look like under the new reform, and the ability to intervene when colleges are deemed to be failing to deliver good outcomes. If providers focus on the wrong priorities now, they may find they do not meet the criteria for future funding.

The current economic crisis, low learner achievement rates, the failure to review apprenticeship delivery cost in line with inflation combined with the war in Ukraine and rising energy and fuel costs has already created an unstable future for some providers. Adding new legislative requirements will continue to create destabilisation for the market. But the bill does create new opportunities for providers too, offering a potentially more optimistic view for the future for those able to make the most of correct implementation of ERBs and devolution onto local stakeholders.

No one would disagree that post-16 education and apprenticeships must provide young people with the relevant skills required by business, in order to fill existing and future skills gaps. The bill appears to offer confidence for providers in securing funding for courses and skills programmes that have been designed more closely with employers and other local stakeholders, giving them more financial stability for future decision making. But with the increased pressure to meet the demand for these more technical programs, providers will have to ensure the skills of teachers and assessors to deliver the required programme level to satisfy ERBs. If they do, they stand to benefit from higher funding and learner numbers.

Again, it is unclear at the moment whether this will relate to an increase in funding overall, or recycling from other funding sources. There will be more funding available for T levels, bootcamps and traineeships, and providers will also benefit from income derived from Lifelong Learning. One of the elements from the Levelling Up and Regeneration introducing statutory underpinning for a lifelong loan entitlement for 4 years of post-18 education at levels 4 to 6, from 2025. This has the potential to transform expectations for thousands of adult learners, creating opportunities for those who may have previously felt they had missed their chance to learn, develop skills or retrain in a new area.

For those concerned around what this means for adults not already qualified to Level 3 standards, it appears that there will be a delay in defunding for some level 3 qualifications, such as BTECs, allowing providers to continue to make the case for certain courses that have demonstrable value for good outcomes in the new landscape. The focus on level 3 and above courses does however still highlight concerns around funding training and skills for the many adults who are yet to achieve levels 1 and 2.

Technology in the new landscape

During this period of change, as providers wrestle with the implications of the Skills Bill, with multiple external cost factors, there is a sense of needing to double-down and invest in the right decisions. Technology is increasingly vital for giving people the time and space to negotiate new ways to achieve the best outcomes – necessary for attracting, retaining and increasing funding.

In April and May this year, Advanced commissioned its annual Trends Report, an independent survey of UK businesses, with specific findings for the education sector. Most learning providers tell us that they recognise the value of EdTech to deliver more time for higher-value tasks, with 53% saying that reducing time spent on admin would most help their staff deliver quality programmes. Education professionals also use remote methods for their own training, with 44% using online delivery for at least half of their personal learning and development.

However, despite 88% describing technology as important or very important for supporting profitability in their organisation, less than one-third (29%) of teachers and education professionals say their leadership is investing in technology to support future growth and profitability. Surely, they are missing a trick here. If learning providers are to make the most of the opportunities presented by the Skills Bill, and successfully negotiate its challenges, they must be properly equipped to make best use of their time and resources. Automated processes can greatly reduce the time spent on repetitive admin, allowing teachers to concentrate on designing and delivering the best courses. Student engagement and assessment software helps apprentices and other learners to get the best experiences, ensuring they complete their courses and go on to begin successful careers, while protecting completion funding for providers.

Decisions based on data

The data that can be collected using powerful digital EdTech can reveal useful trends in learner behaviour that can help providers achieve more. It highlights the importance of learner engagement in retention strategies that are crucial, as funding depends upon demonstrable course completion. Advanced has access to the anonymised data of tens of thousands of learners at providers that use our Smart Apprentices digital solutions to drive better management, course delivery and learner experiences that lead to better outcomes. We can gain insights around the relationships between learner attrition, average numbers of student log-ins, missed sessions and even opportunities to access learning platforms ahead of course start date, for example, by analysing Smart Assessor data we can see that users who engage with our software prior to their course start are 50% more likely to pass.

Insights such as these, and the story behind the data is key for providers seeking to improve retention, for example, our figures show that students who complete the course will have on average more log-ins per week than those who leave the course prior to completion. Colleges can use this data to red-flag students with fewer than average log-ins, identifying those at risk of leaving early and providing the opportunity for interventions and more support to encourage them to stay.

Early leavers also have a significantly higher rate of missed sessions each week, compared to those who stay to the end. Again, providers can monitor their own student data to identify those who are missing sessions and discover the reasons why, offering additional support as necessary. This is critical for helping boost completion figures that help providers maximise the available funding.

True collaboration and sharing of expertise

As the government’s ambition is to involve businesses and potential employers more in the design of courses, thus helping to ensure employees have relevant real-world skills, it makes sense that businesses support higher education providers with the digital knowledge they need.

It would be interesting to see businesses sharing expertise, data and any details on industry advances and garnered insights that come from the developments in machine learning to AI adoption within LMS platforms, with course providers, building stronger, more meaningful and sustainable relationships between industry and education that could result in far better outcomes.

This is the sort of true collaboration that will benefit apprentices and students, ensuring they complete training and achieve necessary qualifications; course providers, who can secure maximum funding for more sustainable planning; and employers who gain business benefits by retaining skilled workers, post-apprenticeship. Stronger partnerships would help fulfil the government objective to create a workforce that is fit for the future.

The Advanced Business Trends Report 2022 represents the views of over 5,000 decision makers and is one of the largest datasets of its kind. It includes sector specific findings for Education that offer unique insights into the ways that professionals in the sector are interacting with and benefitting from technology. Annual Business Trends Report 2022 | Advanced (oneadvanced.com)

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