Secret Lecturer: Learners should set UK’s reskilling agenda

Secret Teacher


Secret Lecturer: Learners should set UK’s reskilling agenda

Almost two years since the Brexit referendum, I still see little government urgency to take concrete steps to fill our impending skills gap. My college certainly welcomes the recent green paper detailing an ESOL strategy (English for speakers of other languages), but that’s just one part of the solution. 

A much larger part – the national retraining scheme announced in last November’s Budget and first mentioned a year ago in the Conservatives’ election manifesto – only had its first ‘partnership’ meeting last month. Is that and the announcement of a few pilot schemes really sending out the right message to an FE sector facing a whole series of skills issues every day?   


Will the government learn from the past?

Some of our existing senior lecturers recall working in the late 1980s when the Manpower Services Commission was set up to re-skill the nation. They worry that a failure to learn from the past and from their own experience – as has often been the case – will happen again. Only they really know what works for people who want to retrain but will they be consulted?

Hopefully, such colleagues will help to press the government to prioritise the needs of individual learners over those of employers, given the fact, for instance, that around 15% of our workforce does not have a regular ‘employer’. 

Just think of the UK’s vast numbers of temporary workers, those on zero hours contracts, the self-employed, the redundant, the unemployed . . . Colleges need to inspire these workers to take time off work to retrain and fill their courses. Ironically, since the government has placed employers in the driving seat with its recent workplace reforms, such as apprenticeships, colleges have seen a slump rather than a rise in skills training requests. People tell me there is less training now than ever. 


Lorry-drivers in line for retraining 

To buck the employer trend and fill our courses, we will have to change the language we use to start inspiring awareness among individual learners about the need to retrain. We also have to work out which sectors will be affected most heavily by technology. Driverless cars, for instance, are in the news, and there’s now talk of lorry drivers having to retrain – and if lorry drivers, why not taxi cab-drivers? A whole generation is having to think about what they do next. 

We’re also working longer as individuals so what we trained for in our 20s won’t work for jobs we’re doing in our 60s. We are not very good at changing midstream in the UK – people seem to think they’ll be in the same job for life. Colleges have a big task to change attitudes.

Theresa May said last year that she understood why people were asking what the future held for them and expressing their worries about Brexit. She said she wanted to work with them. Fine, but we’re a year on and still very concerned about Brexit – and the government has done little to reassure us. 


Eastern Europeans going home in droves

Meanwhile, at an airport near my college, eastern Europeans are the mainstay of almost everything and yet they're moving back home with job vacancy signs everywhere. A colleague told me he’d given his house cleaner two wage rises in 12 months; the first was reassure him that she was still very welcome and wanted in the UK (shortly after the Brexit result) and then, a few months later, the second increase came when some of her family started moving back home!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

If we want to put UK citizens into more highly trained jobs, we have to overcome one big disadvantage: we don’t have enough British workers to fill the shoes of the brilliant people we’ve got used to relying on from mainland Europe. Moreover, around one in five UK employees has low levels of literacy and numeracy. Unless we help them improve those skills, they can’t move into any higher-grade jobs. 


Clarified funding rules leave colleges reeling

And what about attitudes in colleges themselves? Funding rules have had to be re-explained – workers have long had the right to attend free literacy and numeracy classes in the workplace and, although much adult education funding dried up about four years ago, there has always been provision for literacy and numeracy. 

Unfortunately, the rules were worded so clumsily that many colleges wrongly thought they would no longer be funded and would have to foot the bill themselves. Which may account for some of the recently revealed £73m sector allocation underspends from the Adult Education Budget.

The good news is that new guidance was published last month – and, yes, several colleges I know of are still reeling in disbelief. But it does now leave the sector free to get its teeth into one the biggest and most important challenges facing a Brexit-stricken UK – providing life- and work-enhancing literacy and numeracy skills to millions of workers desperately needed to fill a growing skills gap in the workforce of UK Plc.

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