'With Westminster in political turmoil it’s time for FE & Skills to present a vision for renewal' writes Simon Kelleher, Head of Education and Skills at Policy Connect

Listening to both Chancellor Philip Hammond’s somewhat gloomy Mansion House speech and the Queen’s Speech this week, we are reminded of the extent to which skills has risen-up the political agenda in the last couple of years and the opportunities this presents for the FE and skills sector.

Outlining the Government’s strategy to bolster economic growth in anticipation of the rocky Brexit road ahead described by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, Mr Hammond spoke of the imperative to address “under investment, both public and private; inadequate skills; and regional disparities” in the UK. Central to this three-pronged domestic strategy the Chancellor lists T-Levels and technical education reform with the Industrial Strategy and a National Productivity Investment Fund.

Alongside this, the Queen’s Speech announcement of ‘an extra half a billion pounds a year’ for England’s technical education system, and the Labour Party’s Manifesto promise of a fully funded National Education Service, means we have a clear commitment from government, opposition and Parliament to mobilising the FE and skills sector in the national interest. This consensus is an open invitation for the FE sector to step-up and provide policymakers with the ideas and solutions they’re looking for in these uncertain times.

In highlighting the concerted yet defensive stance of the HE lobby on the Brexit negotiations, Shane Chowen in FE Week is right to call on the FE sector to work together and speak up. But to make the most the opportunity this consensus affords, the sector must present the positive vision and the possibilities of a renewed skills system in the current political context. What might a system of smooth transitions from education and training into skilled employment look like on the ground? How might providers become engines of regional growth and social mobility? The sector can lead the agenda, and in providing the solutions, the case for sustained investment can then be made more effectively.

To sector leaders who have been frustrated by recent policy challenges – uncertainty around the Apprenticeship Levy and the location of Institutes of Technology and National Colleges within the education system to name but a few – the configuration of the new Parliament and wider political landscape offers further opportunity to shape policy development.

The precarious position of the Conservative Government, with no overall majority in either the Commons or the Lords, significantly enhances the influence of parliamentary committees, groups and the standing of individual parliamentarians. Added to this, a new crop of Metro-mayors with devolved powers and ambitions for greater regional autonomy could provide further power to a sector ready to promote a plan for local growth and productivity.

The Government will be extremely mindful about its legislative agenda and the implementation of policy, while the opposition and wider Parliament will have greater scope to scrutinise and challenge the Government on policy. In this environment those that can work in concert with others, building coalitions of support have everything to gain. Ideas, policies and amendments that can command the support of a cross-section of the system, from employers to different provider types, to learners, charities and politicians of every hue at local and national level, will have the greatest chance of success.

It remains to be seen what the Chancellor’s observation that “Britain is weary after seven years of hard slog” will mean in reality for the sector, but the opportunities presented by our unique political situation must be seized upon.

Over the coming year the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Skills and Employment will be researching and debating several Brexit scenarios and the challenges and opportunities these present. Similarly, to make a real impact, sector bodies and regional groups should engage each other and policymakers in their programmes for growth and social and economic inclusion.

The skills challenges faced by developed economies with global trends toward automation and new structures of work were already significant before the Brexit vote. With the uncertainty arising from the referendum and General Election, and with the predicted economic turbulence ahead, it is vital FE and skills steps-up to present a vision for the role of a world-class skills system in the nation’s future.  

Policy Connect is the go to cross-party think tank, successfully delivering new policy ideas through research, evidence, political meetings and sector engagement. 

The Education and Skills team provide the secretariat and research for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Skills and Employment, and the Skills and Higher Education Commissions.