Covid changes education, training and skills for ever

UK schools, colleges and universities have seen more change in 2020 than any year since 1536.

The  Dissolution of the Monasteries expedited changes that had been gathering for around a century.  The Internet has had an impact akin to that of the printing press in the way thought and knowledge are communicated. It has led to similar challenges to the competence of established authority. Educational funding and control structures are under stresses not seen in peacetime since before universal suffrage. The impact of lockdown on the “business models” for many Schools and Universities has been similarly dramatic.

There is more to come. The replacement of physical examinations by incremental on-line assessments is more likely than a restoration of GCSEs and A levels after a second year of teacher assessment.  The pace of change in employer attitudes towards graduate recruitments has accelerated. This will have profound consequences for many Universities.

The “new normal” is beginning to look very different. Those who claim they know what it will be are fools, frauds or both. Confidence in ability of Haldane style committees of experts to predict, plan and control that future (as with the Education Acts of  1918 or 1944) cannot be sustained by war time censorship, alias control over “fake news”.

The best we can do is to ease the pain of transition by the way we handle responses to the immediate challenges: using open and honest debate and a mix of devolved, democratic decision-making, municipal enterprise and choice, to allow the future to emerge.

But that is not good enough. We need strategic frameworks to inform, but not control, that process. We will also need regulatory frameworks that better control abuse and fraud while enabling informed choice to meet individual and/or community needs.

On 16th July I had the privilege of introducing and chairing a joint webinar of the Conservative Policy Forum and the Conservative Science and Technology Forum on the theme “How do we give the skills of the future to millions whose education has been disrupted and jobs destroyed” as part of a series of events to take policy discussion outside the Westminster Bubble.

A recording and reports of the summary and presentations are available in the Apprenticeships and Skills area of the CPF website . I promised to summarise and publish the conclusions from the event and the discussion and submit them to the BEIS Select Committee inquiry into Post Pandemic Economic Growth. The draft of that submission is here:   Towards a Post Covid Skills Policy – When IT Meets Politics (

That discussion also led to e-mail threads and proposals for follow up via a number of channels, party political and all-party, professional, sectoral and interest group. These have created threads on topics not covered in the original discussion, covered (in part) in guest blogs on transforming schools to open up access to STEM Skills, on pupil/student identity and the “right” to study/work and  on  the way the digital age/gig economy transforms employment conditions, for good or ill.

The Conservative Policy Forum how has a major exercise under way, deadline 24th January, to collect inputs from all parts of the country on Post-Covid Public Services, including health, welfare and education.  The early inputs to this exercises provide part of the background to the Prime Ministers very public commitment to “levelling up the country” after Brexit.

I have agreed to help organise on-line events to address the themes that have emerged from the e-mail threads hat have emerged from the July ZOOM and follow up discussion threads.

These will address seven broad questions:

  1. How to join up, package and promote current and proposed education, training and support programmes in ways that make sense to target participants, including employers, using shared/common access to pupil/student identifiers and databases which cover the right to study/work/funding as well as the record of achievement/experience.
  2. How to extend and simplify the apprenticeship levy to cover all forms of employer recognised and accredited training and skills development programmes, using evolving skills definitions based on real jobs and market intelligence.
  3. How to use UK Social Value legislation, in the context of post-Brexit freedoms and obligations, to embed local recruitment and training into all public procurements to encourage robust supply chains, job creation, reskilling and lifelong learning and to reward good employers for doing good business.
  4. How to encourage and publicise opportunities for seamless on-line access (from Open Schools, through FE, HE and Apprenticeship to Lifelong Learning) to education, training and careers materials and advice from schools, college, universities, the Careers and Enterprise Company across the Joint Academic Network, the Grids for Learning and other secure, resilient networks.
  5. How to use JANET, the Grids, broadband vouchers, the outside-in broadband programme and support programmes for socially inclusive pupil/student access, to enable full fibre networks to link community life-long learning hubs in every science and business park, commercial centre, school, library, community centre and village hall.
  6. How to use “furlough” training vouchers, focused on specific skills and industries within local strategies, to help drive quality and repurposing, using employer-recognised providers, to develop the skills of future, not just those in immediate demand and how to learn from others to avoid the waste, inefficiency and widescale fraud/corruption of past UK programmes.
  7. How to achieve consensus on driving change via local, regional and national partnerships of schools, colleges, universities, trade associations, professional bodies, employers, job-seekers, parents, students, careers advisors, officials and politicians, even though this will lead inevitably to post code lotteries as they respond differently to local conditions, needs and priorities

I aim to blog on each question in turn although some may require more than one blog/session.

Thus the first question: How to Join up Policy, Programmes, Delivery, Information and Guidance, splits naturally into three:

  • How to use the “crisis” to join up policy formation, scrutiny and implementation across central and local government boundaries to address inequalities of incentive, access and opportunity, to reduce waste, duplication, inefficiency and injustice and enable genuinely informed choice.

The skills in demand increasingly cross traditional academic and professional disciplines, let alone sector boundaries. There are issues and needs with regard to joining up policy and implementation across Central and Local Government legislative, regulatory and funding boundaries including those of DfE, DCMS, BEIS, DHCLG, Funding Councils, OfSted, Institute for Apprenticeships, Local Authorities, LEPs and public sector (e.g. Health, Welfare and Law Enforcement) skills and training programmes.

There is also a need to greatly improve engagement between central/local government and the Professional Bodies and Trades Unions (including but not just for teaching), Trade Associations and their training/skills operations.

This is likely to lead to a Swiftian “Modest Proposal” but, if ever there was a time/need for action to improve constructive co-operation across the tribes of Whitehall it is in the wake of Covid.

  • How to join up pupil/student identities and records and the right to learn, study and work, including to enable individuals to provide potential trainers/employers with authoritative information for funding, law-enforcement, regulatory or selection purposes.

The UK Public sector has five main identity systems referencing records relevant to education and training. These do not share information, whether or not this is in the interests of the individual:

  1. When you are born, or first register for health care after entering the UK, you receive a National Health Service Number (which references your health care).
  2. When you go to school you receive a Unique Pupil Number . This references your education, lapses when you leave school. It must not be used for any purpose unrelated to education).
  3. Before you reach the age of 14 you should receive a Unique Learner Number which references a Personal Learning Record which includes your exam results for access via the National Careers Service and use by UCAS , College and University. Neither students nor prospective employers have right of access.
  4. When you reach 16 or get a job or claim benefit after entering the UK you acquire a National Insurance Number, which it is stated) is proof of nothing.
  5. If HMRC require you to a self-assessment for tax the process will include assigning you a Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR) additional to your NINO.

If any of these identities are unknown it is commonly easier for the hospital/GP practice, school, college, university or employer to request that a new number be created than to initiate a search for the existing number. Hence the reason why many individuals have duplicated, partial and/or unvalidated identities/records.

  • How to provide timely and useful information and guidance for parents, pupils, students, carers advisors, employers and training providers, including on the skills in current or prospective demand, local, national or global.

There are well-established routines for “informing” a choice of University courses but other careers advice is most commonly on offer when it is least wanted (e.g. early years education), not when it is most needed. In consequence most searches are ad hoc, on-line, across job sites rather than via school or college services. Careers advice should also be available on-line, driven by labour market information based on real jobs with real employers. Relevance is essential so too is inter-activity, for teachers, parents, pupils and employers.

There is also a need to help employers and those looking for work to make sense of the schemes on offer and how they fit with benefits entitlement. Thus employers receive an incentive of £1,000 per Traineeship, which may range from 6 weeks to 6 months with varying requirements. Kickstart is for those aged 16 – 24 who are out of work, on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. There are varying incentives for apprenticeships according to age. Meanwhile T-Levels will require 45 week industry placements. The Essential Digital Skills entitlement is fully funded and a huge demand is expected, presenting challenges of scalability and resilience of delivery as well as of maintaining quality.

I plan to also produce blogs covering [plans for possible “sector” skills partnerships for cybersecurity, digital infrastructure (including fibre/5G), health (including care) and “green”, including who should be invited.

The on-line events are likely to have a variety of hosts, each wanting participants to join their group and put time and effort into helping bring about the actions they would like to see.

Once again the silent majority will get what it deserves … ignored.


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