You probably saw the headlines last week about the Government cutting funding for pole dancing qualifications, along with self-tanning and balloon artistry. Ok, yes – I agree that these qualifications may not seem like the best use of tax payers’ money. And of course they make much better headlines for the media, who seized the chance to scoff at the adult learning courses headed for the scrapheap. After all, who could possibly argue the value of using Government funds to help adults reach that perfect shade of TOWIE orange?
But let’s not be too hasty or continue with this flippant rhetoric. Not least because many of the qualifications referenced in MP Matthew Hancock’s announcement didn’t even receive funding in the first place! Beneath the sniggering is a serious point: adult learners will no longer be able to access funded training in the 5000 vocational courses that the Government has deemed unworthy. The qualifications affected cut across a range of sectors including accounting, engineering, beauty therapy and IT. Surely these industries cannot be dismissed so easily?
The reason behind the cuts is simple; by streamlining the adult skills system, £200m can be redirected towards qualifications that are expressly valued by employers. City & Guilds has long called for employers to be more integrated into the education system and help embed the skills they need for their industry. In fact, we develop our qualifications with businesses to ensure they are meaningful and lead directly into work.
When done in the right way, adult learning benefits learners, their potential employers, and industries as a whole. Hancock called for a move towards ‘more effective qualifications’, and this emphasis on employability should certainly be supported – neither the learner nor a potential employer will benefit if they embark on a course that fails to provide them with useful skills.
But by focusing on achieving a centralised quota, rather than looking at the needs of industry, I worry the Government has gone too far. As a result, we are in very real danger of devaluing not just certain qualifications, but the wider important role of adult learning in work and society. Just because some qualifications don’t sound important or worthwhile, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there making a living out of them and therefore contributing to our tax system.
Likewise we can’t assume that just because a qualification is niche to a certain industry, or has limited take up, that it is worthless. In fact it could be the complete opposite. It could help to develop a much-needed skill within a much bigger industry.
Take for example our qualifications in wind turbine operations and maintenance. Yes, it’s a niche skill area – but it’s just one of the trades that Government needs to protect by offering qualifications, even if take-up is low. Particularly when you consider the renewable energy sector will need 70,000 new roles to be filled in the next 10 years. We need to encourage people to join the sector, not hamper its cause even further.
With figures out last week showing that youth unemployment is at a high not seen since 1984, it is crucial that we consider the bigger picture. Too many unemployed young people go on to become unemployed adults – and to stop that happening we need to safeguard the steps up the ladder.
Many people, especially those who have been alienated for too long from the learning and skills arena, are unable to jump straight into learning at more advanced levels. They have to develop their knowledge, skills and confidence – and they often do this by completing the very same entry-level courses, or qualifications with fewer credits, that are at risk of being scrapped under the recent review. We need to maintain these clear progression routes to get people back into learning.
The Government is right to focus on this area, and we hope their reforms will strengthen the reputation and offering of adult learning. A simplified, effective system that paves the way for people to acquire the skills they need to be workplace-ready is crucial – to individuals, employers, and to the health of the economy as a whole. But let’s not be too hasty. We need to think about what’s right for employers – and the economy – first.
Kirstie Donnelly, UK MD, City and Guilds