LEPs can help provide pathways to technology careers

September 23, 2014, by Tom Stannard. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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Column originally published in the Local Government Chronicle on 9 September 2014.

In early 2014 NIACE published groundbreaking research on its work with a number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) employers in the Dorset LEP area.

All the employers were positive about the potential of the government’s new traineeship programme. They saw how a traineeship – a pre-apprenticeship programme for young people – could provide a much-needed pathway to future STEM careers.

However, there was a problem. Prior to our intervention, not one of the 14 participating employers had actually heard of traineeships. This risked limiting the potential of traineeships, which rely in part on employers providing work placements as a key part of the national programme.

Our work also demonstrated that the role of LEPs was crucial for the successful delivery of the traineeship programme, and vital to evaluating and subsequently meeting the growing and changing needs of local labour markets, STEM or otherwise.

Skills shortages are the biggest threat to sustainable and equitable economic growth for communities across the county. Employers who invest in training for their staff at all levels recognise that by developing their workforce they are improving their productivity and business success.

But the recent UKCES Employer Skills Survey showed that only two-thirds of employers were regularly training their staff, and a third of all workers – which could be as many as 10 million people – get no training at work whatsoever.

We set out bold remedies for change in the national skills system in our 2015 general election manifesto published in June. A ‘new localism’ on skills was central to this proposition, a proposal that rapidly commanded strong support from across local government.

We are also now taking forward the findings of our initial work in Dorset. This will expand the programme to the Humber LEP this autumn, delivering a demonstration pilot exploring how traineeships can work for STEM within the local area.

The programme will support Humber LEP to raise awareness of the traineeship programme and to enable providers to develop STEM-focused traineeship opportunities that are responsive to local skills gaps. It will also empower the LEP to better engage STEM employers in offering traineeship work experience opportunities to young people.

STEM is a key priority within the Humber region, which has a strategic focus on a number of industries including renewable energy, engineering, manufacturing, ports and logistics and chemicals. NIACE’s work with Humber LEP will complement a range of established and planned STEM activity within the region, including the development of the innovative Humber Energy Skills Centre of Excellence.

We are looking forward to continuing to help LEPs and local government maximise the impact of practical vocational skills programmes, providing much-needed pathways to STEM job roles for young people in response to local labour market needs.

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Hidden unemployment

September 17, 2014, by Caroline Berry. filed under Uncategorized; 1 Comment.

Today’s headline unemployment figures are not as interesting as they once were. ‘As per the previous month’ is a good summary and the overall picture for the labour market remains positive. Employment is up substantially and unemployment is down. Just over 30 million people are in work and the unemployment rate of 6.2% is at the lowest level since 2008. Youth unemployment which has been a concern for so long continues to fall and now stands at around 747,000 people. There is probably more focus on potential interest rate rises than the actual labour market figures.

Yet within all these positive headlines we need to take a closer look at the details. Whilst it may be the same as the previous month, not all the figures are moving as convincingly in the right direction. The number of unemployed women aged 50 and over remains at 136,000 and has been more or less static for at least the last two years. The numbers have only just begun to decrease. This is the only age group where there has been minimal and slow change, when other age groups have seen large decreases in the number of unemployed. Why is that?

Before I am dismissed for not seeing the bigger picture, I know the numbers are small when compared to other age groups. I also know the unemployment rate for women aged 50 and over is low. I also understand all the economic arguments about human capital and economic returns. I do appreciate that it has not the same group of unemployed women as people move in and out of work. But 40% of these unemployed women have been unemployed for more than a year. Maybe this is just one of those troublesome figures to ignore. The numbers do not follow the overall patterns, the numbers are small and there is no easy solution. Do we just need to keep a focus on other groups that are more important?

For me, this raises much bigger questions. Are we not challenging ourselves with more questions and debate because it is about women aged 50 and over? Have we become too distracted by the headlines and big numbers? Is it just one of those issues that does not fit the agenda? What do you think? Am I making a fuss about nothing?

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Too many good reports?

September 9, 2014, by David Hughes. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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Are there too many reports setting out the challenges we face in learning and skills and the solutions we need to put into action? Yesterday was a great example of this, with four reports – from the UKCES, the BIS Select Committee, Save the Children and the Liberal Democrats – all setting out similar compelling arguments for change.

The trouble is, they all say useful things and echo much of what we have been saying in our own reports, including our manifesto which we published in June. This is particularly true of the Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto which pleasingly endorsed and built upon many of our proposals for action.

I was particularly intrigued at the coincidence of the other three though, because they all provide more weight to our position that more needs to be spent on literacy and numeracy. Interestingly, all of the reports broadly support the need for more flexible, more informal and more locally joined-up learning delivery. In other words, the four reports make it clear that we need to make changes to address the skills needs of the UK.

The BIS Select Committee inquiry into literacy and numeracy says many of the things we have been saying for many years and came up with some sensible and helpful recommendations. It ends with a call for a high-profile national campaign to promote free training for literacy and numeracy. This is a good idea, along with others in the report. When considered in light of the UKCES report it feels even more important that the BIS Select Committee recommendations are properly considered.

I say this because the UKCES report sets out the stark challenge for the UK that whilst by 2020 nearly half the adult population would be qualified at Level 4+ we will still be living in a country in which 7 million adults would be qualified below Level 2. Unsurprisingly, when compared to other OECD countries, the UK performs well on high-level skills, but is in the third quartile of countries for numbers at low and medium skill levels. UKCES therefore argues, as NIACE has for a while, that there is a clear policy priority to address the long ‘tail’ of lower skilled members of the UK workforce.

I would go further than the UKCES on this, because the situation is probably even worse than the report sets out. The 2020 estimate is based on recent trends in learning and skills achievements. We know that funding for adults from the state and by employers has dropped and looks set to drop even further in the next few years. If that is the case then the 7 million figure may be optimistic.

The Save the Children report says that poor literacy could cost the UK as much as £32bn in growth over the next 10 years and calls for action to ensure all 11 year olds can ‘read well’ by 2025. That will require adults to read to their children and to achieve it we will need more support for millions of adults to have the confidence and skills to be able to do that.

I would also urge you to read the BIS Select Committee report to appreciate how powerful learning can be for people with low level skills and also how much more needs to be done to deliver learning and support which really works at lower levels. It is exciting and ‘sexy’ to focus on higher level skills, but it is right to also pay more attention to, and put more resource into, lower level provision as well.

So, lots of reports, reams of firm evidence and lots of agreement about the challenges and some of the solutions. What we need now is some concerted actions and leadership to pull people and resources together. I’m happy to play my part with NIACE to help make that happen, I just hope you are too?

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MPs endorse NIACE’s manifesto during adult learning debate

September 5, 2014, by Steve Mulligan. filed under Uncategorized; 1 Comment.
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Just a few days into my new role as Assistant Director of Policy and Public Affairs, I’m very pleased to pen my first blog at NIACE. It’s also a great opportunity to note my delight at joining the organisation during this hugely exciting time, where a core focus over the coming months will be on influencing the main parties to adopt NIACE’s manifesto asks within their own manifestos, ahead of May’s General Election. I’m particularly passionate about the adult skills agenda and the transformative role it can play in people’s lives, having benefitted from HE as an adult learner in my mid-twenties, allowing me to leave the building site behind to pursue my passion in Public Affairs.

Wednesday afternoon provided a fantastic opportunity for us to promote our policy asks, with Meg Hillier MP leading an impassioned adjournment debate on adult learning in the House. It was heartening to hear so many sincere contributions from MPs drawing on strong personal testimonies. The debate demonstrated the strength of feeling amongst MPs that the Government needs to do much more to develop a skills offer that allows all people to achieve their potential and contribute more to our society and economy. It also demonstrated the support for many of the policies within NIACE’s manifesto across the party divide.

Nick Boles MP led the Government response, in what was only his second debate in the House since being promoted to Skills Minister in July’s reshuffle. He reminded members that he himself is an “adult learner” and restated the Government’s central position that “…the most important policy to ensure…improvement is the policy on Apprenticeships”. He noted the need for more higher-level Apprenticeships and welcomed an increase in the number of adults doing Apprenticeships, although emphasised that these should not be at the expense of 16 to 18-year-olds. He also referred to the “difficult and painful” choice to cut the Adult Learning budget, stressing his belief that much of the budget previously spent by Labour funded “…qualifications which did not prepare people for work, enrich their CVs, enable them to command better jobs or add to the productivity”.

NIACE’s work over many years has shown the more expansive and intrinsic value of all adult formal and informal learning – to civil and wider society, long-term physical and mental health, as well as the compelling economic benefits. Providing opportunities for non-accredited learning through the development of the citizens’ curriculum approach will present sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of individual learners. We believe that now is the time to move beyond a qualifications-based funding system towards an outcome-based system.

Responding for the opposition, Shadow Skills Minister, Liam Byrne MP, highlighted a further central theme of our manifesto – the negative impact which our growing skills deficit has on productivity and economic recovery. He then majored his arguments on the Government’s choice to cut adult skills and the “broken bridge” between funding for 18-year-olds and funding for those over the age of 24.

A number of speakers, including Conservative member Marcus Jones MP, articulated the need for more local direction of strategic spending, reflecting our manifesto’s call for a “new localism” and a full integration of skills and economic growth strategies. Meg Hillier MP, who we briefed in advance, spoke eloquently about the clear challenges in adult skills provision and take up. She noted many of the concerns we raised in our manifesto, such as the growing skills deficit and the need for all adults to have opportunities to learn and benefit from their learning at all stages of their lives. Hillier also called on the Government to provide much greater clarity to the sector on future funding and the need for them to do much more to tackle inequalities.

She was followed by Kate Green MP (Stretford and Urmston), who raised concerns about mature students significantly falling away from higher education because they find it difficult to take on further debt alongside other financial obligations. It was also particularly pleasing to hear her glowing tribute to Adult Learners’ Week.

Longstanding NIACE supporter, Nick Dakin MP made a big play of the life changing role of adult skills, noting that “Adult learning has long been a passport to fulfilment. It helps raise aspirations and transforms lives.” Dakin also warmly endorsed our proposal to “create secure adult learning accounts, into which the individual, the employer and the Government could contribute… put in place for all adult learners, whatever pathway they choose to take, and thereby bringing greater parity between academic and vocational routes.” – one of our key priority actions for the next Government.

I’m looking forward to working with my new colleagues and our wider partnership to help further embed NIACE’s manifesto – Skills for Prosperity: Building Sustainable Recovery for All – and ensure it achieves the prominence and impact it deserves.

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New report on improving ESOL provision making headlines

August 19, 2014, by Alex Stevenson. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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It’s not often that ESOL hits the headlines, but last night’s BBC Newsnight provided a welcome focus in the mainstream media on ESOL provision and its importance for the one million or so people in England and Wales believed not to speak English fluently. It showed the importance of ESOL provision for families, for employment and for progression to further learning – illustrated by the inspirational story of a Gurkha family in Plumstead and the benefits ESOL learning had brought.

The programme also highlighted the recent cuts in funding for ESOL provision, and the consequent lack of capacity in the system to meet the demand for courses. During the studio discussion David Lammy MP made a decent fist of the case for investment in ESOL and the need to support the most vulnerable adults with ESOL needs, despite the complexities of the issue. It was a shame that the politicians’ debate then took an unfortunate slide into immigration rhetoric, rather than keeping a focus on what needs to be done to support access to ESOL provision. Nevertheless, it’s good to see ESOL being discussed on national television at all.

On Speaking Terms, a new Demos report on ESOL which prompted the Newsnight story, is certainly not short on ideas to improve ESOL provision. What’s particularly refreshing about this report is its recognition of the broader advantages of ESOL, beyond the limited focus of the current skills policy on ESOL for employment. Quite rightly, the report points out the importance of ESOL in enabling better access to healthcare and education, bringing about important softer outcomes such as increased confidence, and wider societal benefits. Also welcome is the report’s starting point of ESOL provision as ‘unlocking migrant capabilities’ and the recognition of bi or multilingualism as an asset, rather than a problem to be solved.

Practitioners and providers may not agree with all of the report’s recommendations, but they certainly make for interesting reading. Amongst the most eye-catching are: the development of a national strategy for ESOL in England (unlike Wales or Scotland, England doesn’t have one); greater support for ESOL in the workplace from employers and from BIS through the re-introduction of workplace ESOL funding; and a number of measures to improve access to ESOL by joining up provision at the local level, including an enhanced role for local authorities in targeting ESOL to meet local needs and integrating formal and informal learning opportunities.

The Demos report recommends Government consultation on ways in which the overall quality of ESOL provision can be improved. As Prof. Mike Baynham points out in his blog on the report, there is evidence of much good practice to build upon. It’s also important to consider ways in which ESOL connects with other skills needs which adult learners may have. NIACE’s work on a Citizens’ Curriculum approach to adult learning for those with the lowest skills levels – which incorporates elements of informal, non-formal and formal learning and integrates ESOL, literacy and numeracy skills with wider health, digital, financial and civic capabilities – could contribute to this.

The report also backs NIACE’s General Election 2015 Manifesto proposal for the introduction of Personal Skills Accounts. These could be particularly useful to support ESOL learning at the higher levels for professional, vocational and academic purposes. Another of the report’s suggestions, the introduction of a loans system for ESOL, would require careful consultation to ensure that these would not act as a disincentive to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged adults to access provision. NIACE has argued for a major, independent review into funding issues which could identify the most appropriate options for different types of ESOL provision and the diverse cohorts of learners who stand to benefit from it.

What do you think about the recommendations from Demos? Do you have any other suggestions on improving ESOL provision?

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