Lifelong learning, more technical training provision and industry-involved professional development for FE teaching staff. It sounds good but, asks Sara Whybrew, is it too good to be true?

The long-awaited new Skills White Paper was published last week. Many of us in the skills world have been waiting for this since the autumn, hopeful that it would bring us the gift of well-considered, industry responsive skills solutions for the technical further and higher education offer across England.

In the skills world this White Paper is the equivalent of waiting for The Rolling Stones to release their next album: will it blow us away or tell us that everyone needs to find something else to do eventually?

At first glance, the plan presents an almost dreamy combination of commitments that one wants to get behind, making one sigh with relief then mutter the words ‘finally’.

Much of what I read played so closely into asks we have been making for years: flexibilities for apprenticeships to make them easier for sectors that have atypical working patterns? Tick. Modular training approaches to support lifelong learning? Tick. Professional development for Further Education staff, including closer links with industry? Tick.

Local Skills Plans that encourage employers and educators to work together? Tick. Careers education for everyone? Tick. Up to date Labour Market Information to inform priorities? Tick. Technical education to have parity of esteem with academia? Tick, and tick again.

These ambitions are welcome because they aim to improve the quality and availability of technical and vocational training options for careers in our sector and see that these are aligned to the needs of local industry.

Overall, these commitments present an opportunity to remove the stigma that has so long been attached to non-academic training routes, both busting the myth that these are second-rate options for ‘underperforming’ learners and giving deserved credibility to technical training. As a result we should see a broad and diverse pool of talent, from school leavers to career changers, attracted to pursue training routes that work for them at a pace that works for them.

My enthusiasm for this impressive array of commitments was almost enough to leave me convinced we’d done it, we’d secured the very things we’ve been repeatedly asking for, year after year, for the most part with the enthusiasm of a puppy and more lately with the exasperation of a parent juggling full time work and home schooling. Whatever it took, we’d got there.

Then, a dulling in my chest. As I worked my way through this 80-page skills bible I saw a lot of words that created a strong sense of deja vu: ‘we’ll develop the skills that employers need’, ‘we know colleges have a unique ability to connect employers to learners’, ‘we will take a user-centred approach, working closely with employers to identify solutions’, ‘driving demand for technical skills by harnessing business intelligence’.

Well, these words are indeed a delight to read, but when you read then time and time again, year after year and see nothing change, one is left questioning if this is just platitudinal rhetoric.

As I worked through these reinvented pages, I read how employers will sit at the heart of these solutions by informing occupational standards for all technical training options, provide work experience for Traineeships, Industry Placements and T Levels, support the professional development of teachers and co-design local skills plans.

Whilst a strong technical education system cannot exist without industry at its heart, I must question how an industry such as ours, dominated by micros and SMEs and on a course of recovery that may take years, can play any real part at scale here. I see no reference to the support employers will be given to do all this stuff, just the support that will be given to Providers, who seemingly will not be able to meet these new ambitions without employers?

Then I turn to the young people, the next generation who need to be part of the solution to our skills issues, and question how those who are less advantaged can pursue a career in our sector through these routes, that so strongly focus on local needs. There appears to be a serious omission here: what if young people have career dreams that stretch beyond the industry available to them on their doorstep? How will they be supported to take up training that might well be based in a part of the country that is, in every sense, completely out of reach?

Whilst the principles of these skills ambitions are welcome, it’s the reality of what happens next that matters. I for one hope the reality will be a lot less ‘track and trace’ and a lot more ‘Jacinda Ardern in a crisis’.

Sara Whybrew, Director of Policy and Development at Creative & Cultural Skills