Will area reviews fix the skills gap?

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29 November 2016 by Janet Clark
The government recently published guidance for the Review of Post-16 Education and Training - known as the area reviews. At 60 pages long, and with more detail to follow, this document indicates the complexity of reconfiguring the post-16 sector.

If you have the time, you can read it here.

In a process, such as this, carried out at great speed and involving huge organisations and multiple stakeholders, there is a danger of losing sight of the overarching objectives. Let’s remind ourselves therefore, that the government aims for each area review to establish post-16 institutions that are:

  • financially resilient
  • able to offer high quality education and training based on the needs of learners and employers within the local area.

Although that second aim gives equal weight to the needs of learners and employers, it seems that the requirements of the latter group are increasingly being prioritised in government education policy.

This has been particularly stark in post-16 education, first with apprenticeship reforms and now with area reviews. Of equal concern is how this emphasis on the employer is encroaching into the pre-16 sector too: earlier this year, the recently established Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy asked for views on how careers advice in schools and colleges can help to match skills with labour market needs. 

So where has the government’s agenda to ‘put employers in the driving seat’ come from?

We frequently read press comments from businesses about the challenges they face recruiting people with the skills needed - the so-called ‘skills gap'.  Last year a CBI survey of companies, which together employ over one million people, revealed that more than half fear that they will not be able to access enough workers with the required skills.  And the call for more employees with STEM skills is particularly persistent.

It is true that measures are necessary to tackle the stubbornly high number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET), which currently stands at 12% of 16- to 24-year-olds. But can area reviews provide the solution to skills gaps and high youth unemployment?

Establishing detailed information about local labour markets is vital to ensure young people understand the opportunities available to them and so that colleges can put the educational routes in place to support learners into these jobs.  But the changing nature of these markets makes this a complicated task.

One only needs to think about the change to the labour market which will occur as a result of the job losses at Tata Steel in Scunthorpe to understand the complex and dynamic nature of local skills needs.  More complex analysis is necessary to understand the number of jobs available at levels suitable for school and college leavers, and how changes such as major plant closures impact on these, as older workers are forced to downgrade as a result of redundancy.

Will area review steering groups be able to take such complexity and a longer term view into consideration when making recommendations on the future of FE colleges?

All too often, the assumption around area reviews is that vocational education is training that will lead directly to a job. This is simply not the case.  Most young people take up places on vocational courses because they have a strong interest in a certain sector, not because they want to target a particular job role.

Which leads us on to the purpose of education.  It is not job-specific training, but as ATL recently stated in its submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England, “about teaching… young people to live in the world we have, and to work to make the world a better place.”

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Educational reform