Though the House of Lords was not itself divided during the Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, division (or its absence) was very much a theme that peers kept returning to.

David Willetts referred to an “artificial conflict” between vocational and academic sectors, noting that there were many universities that have more than 70 per cent of their students studying work-linked courses that met standards and requirements set by professional bodies and employers.

Former ministers repent

After all, many FE providers offer HE courses, many HE providers offer FE courses. Like many former ministers who contributed to the debate, Willetts lamented the impact of his attempts to use a single funding model to suit 18 year olds and adult learning to the decline of the latter. Susan Garden, speaking towards the end of the debate, agreed that fee loans – though palatable to 18 year old school leavers – would be singularly offputting to adult learners with family and financial responsibilities.

Jo Johnson has even more recent memories of steering a bill through Parliament, and accordingly his eye was less on the text of the bill than what would happen when it met the Treasury. Like many speakers he cautioned against the likely attempts to limit access to creative courses – which would “starve the supply of talent” to a range of economically and socially important employment sectors because of a preference for other sectors that offered higher salaries.

There have, as Estelle Morris and Roger Liddle, reminded us, been numerous attempts to grasp the nettle of skills provision (more than 70 pieces of legislation in recent years). This makes it clear what a complex area of policy it is – writing it (as Morris said) as a mere customer-supplier relationship, and drawing simplistic divides into policy making (David Blunkett notes the artificiality of separating towns and cities, academic and technical learning, and HE and FE) sells us short.

Tellingly, Johnson described the Treasury habit of assessing educational value by loan repayment rates as “reductive”, but few expected him to take aim at a “bewildering” range of regulatory bodies with responsibilities in post-16 education. Having given life to the beleaguered Office for Students, he seemed surprisingly keen to bring about a single – joined up – regulator.

Such skills, so local

In her well received maiden speech, Sue Black noted that:

We cannot predict which skills will stand us in good stead

This cut to the heart of the Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP) approach, which would see employers as the central arbiter of what provision is needed locally (though the bill doesn’t explicitly say what local means). Some speakers queried why the student was no longer at the heart of the system, others doubted the agency of current local industry to predict the needs of a rapidly changing local economy, and yet others queried whether there was a role for a national skills strategy with links to work on the industrial strategy.

There’s clearly no shortage of employers working with education providers – Nicky Morgan noted her local FE colleges in Loughborough worked with more than 700, and we heard mention of a number of other mechanisms (local employer partnerships, the work of metro mayoral initiatives) for bringing industry into the skills conversation.

For something that Tessa Blackstone described as a “skeleton with too little flesh on it” and a “work in progress”, the Bill under examination has a lot of policy antecedents. Both the Augar Review and the Skills White Paper made a clear case for work on careers education, advice, and guidance – a key component that does not feature on the face of the Bill. Negotiating a complex modular marketplace requires both assurance about the potential for articulation and detailed and personal career planning support. The Bill as it stands currently offers neither.

Careering about

Like many aspects of this proposal, careers education is currently out for consultation and review. We’re also awaiting a sure to be controversial consultation on student funding via the lifelong learning entitlement – something that Elizabeth Berridge described as a “replacement” for the current student loan system – which will also cover maintenance, and eligibility (including at subject level) for funding. These are huge undertakings, and many members expressed the hope that measures would be added to the bill at a time and in a way that allowed for detailed scrutiny.

This combination of moving parts is perhaps why the central measures not will roll out likely until after the next election – meaning that learners and FE will miss out on changes that need to be made now to support our recovery from Covid and Brexit. As Michael Bichard put it, “bold ambition and warm words” are not enough. We need detail on delivery, and as yet we don’t have it.

Unusually, we heard from the acknowledged architect of the Bill in the Lords Chamber – Alison Wolf advises the Prime Minister on education and skills and the Bill builds towards a Number 10 priority in “levelling up” (Gavin Williamson was also in the chamber for an hour lounging by the Throne, clearly having little else to be getting on with on a sunny afternoon). Wolf’s spirited defence of the proposed legislation unhelpfully re-centred the “divide” narrative, though she admitted that the Bill did not enshrine all of the government’s plans to reform fee loans, and noted the measures to bring protection for students studying at failed independent providers.

In response to questions

It is clear that we shall see a number of amendments at committee – Mike Watson noted these might include bringing other stakeholders into the “employer centred” LSIP process, and limiting some of the powers given to central government to control what is taught and where. Aims were welcomed, detail was sought.

Aptly, Elizabeth Berridge had a lot of general goodwill to enjoy, and plenty of specific pinch points to respond to for the government. She was clear that the government was attempting to achieve a system of “parity of esteem” rather than pit FE against HE. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) will bring together all support for qualifications between Level 4 and Level 6, triggered at the point of acceptance onto a course.

The LSIPs will be defined by “employers” (in broad terms, including public sector bodies and universities alongside SMEs and traditional industry), and expected to take a dynamic, longer view that includes a future for the area. Green jobs will almost certainly play a part, as will national needs as defined by the National Skills and Productivity Board.

Levelling around

What’s curious (especially post-Covid when we are all statistical and administrative geography nerds…) is that “local” will be self-defined – the vision seems to be that groups will spontaneously form and apply to the Secretary of State for approval. The expectation is that bodies active in that local area (mayoral authorities, councils, LEPs…) would be involved.

Berridge was stymied by the fact that so much of the policy making that is underway doesn’t need legislation (careers guidance reforms being one of them), and so many things are happening in parallel. There is what sounds like an imminent consultation on maintenance, credit transfer and ELQs within the LLE: it feels odd not to do this alongside the debate on fee levels due in the Augar response alongside the spending review. We’ll get Islamic Law compliant finance details at that point too, we are told (I have my doubts).

The massive delay to implementation is due to the need to co-design an entirely new funding process with the Student Loans Company – and reading between the lines parallel work on aligning the LLE with benefit entitlements is at a very early stage as well (there’s a “will write” letter pending on that).

So with the Bill through to the Committee of the Whole House next, there’s still a lot of detail to fill in and a lot of arguments to be had. What came over today was the sheer scale of the project and the astonishing amount of policy development work that has yet to be done – it all screams “unexpected implementation delay” to this old programme manager – and the difficulty in expecting the notably subtle minds of some very experienced peers to address the letter of proposed legislation before the policy has solidified.

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