Reskilling those whose futures have been destroyed by the Covid lockdown

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee of the House of Commons has launched an  inquiry into “Post Pandemic Economic Growth “. The sixth of its twelve questions is “How can Government best retain key skills and reskill and upskill the UK workforce to support economic recovery and sustainable growth“.  Conservative Policy Forum, (the in-house think tank of the party), has a more stark focus “How do we give the skills of the future to millions whose education has been disrupted and jobs destroyed?“.  Meanwhile the all-party Digital Policy Alliance is drilling down into some of the detail with a recent meeting on progress with cyberskills partnerships and one coming up on the skills to build smart rural and coastal economies.

There are a growing number of opportunities to input your views and help make things happen they way you want them to. Remember the recurrent theme of this blog. The silent majority gets what is deserves, ignored.

The scale of change has overtaken the methodologies not just the forecasts

There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen” – Lenin

The Covid lockdown has demonstrated the potential of Educational Technology to support remote learning and workplace training but the focus on “free” access threatens to destroy the revenue streams of most on-line course and content providers.

We have learned much about what does and what does not work, from:

  • re-learning old lessons about working at home  (as opposed to “from” home), to
  • the organisation and support of education in the home, and
  • why home-work clubs and safe study centres are so important for so many children.

So how could/should we help a near bankrupt education and training sector reskill that quarter of the current workforce now furloughed or unemployed?

  • at the same time as helping the next generation (whose education has been disrupted) to acquire the skills needed to rebuild the economy,
  • at a time of global economic collapse, unemployment and starvation,
  • while previous forecasts  of the skills in long term demand have been overtaken by the scale of change now in prospect


  1. The Potential for short term responses to get in the way of sustainable “solutions”
  2. What should be the role of Government: centrally driven planning/leadership or support frameworks for local initiative?
  3. The structure of Education, Training and Skills Markets is changing
  4. Your Action Plan
  5. Background Analysis
  6. Possible Actions include

1) The Potential for short term responses to get in the way of sustainable “solutions”

We have seen schools, colleges, universities and commercial/professional training providers accelerate the provision of on-line courses and content on-line, leading to variations in access  to learning which threaten to dramatically increased social inequality.  The limitations of purely on-line delivery have also been demonstrated at the same as its potential to help overcome resource constraints in transforming educational experiences.

The Department for Education has brought forward action to help schools and pupils with access to technology including via the Education Technology programme  supported by London Grid for Learning . But the accompanying focus on “free” tools threatens to undermine the economic viability of the UK educational technology sector.

The initiatives promoted via trade associations, professional bodies and others to make introductory entrepreneurial, digital and cybersecurity courses “freely” available are welcome. But these endanger the commercial viability of those innovative training providers who moved their technical and professional  courses on-line for remote access, only to find that their customers have furloughed their training staff, after postponing delivery and/or cancelling contracts and freezing plans and budgets.

The backlog, let alone the new demand from those with no job to go back to, will require targeted vocational training on a scale not seen since the early days of World War2 1939. But in what skills? Most current forecasts are no longer valid. Nor are most current forecasting methodologies.

2) What should be the role of Government: centrally driven planning/leadership or support frameworks for local initiative?

Wartime analogies leading to comparisons with post war nationalisation, planning and debt repayment are put forward by those who forget that rationing was more severe in 1946/7 than in 1942/3. Centralised planning was such a success that rationing continued until 1953 and currency controls continued for another 25 years.  Public sector finances were not balanced until 1997. The incoming Labour Government then changed the policy and returned to a belief in top down planning from the centre.

There are many ideas about how to address the problems/opportunities, from:

  • changing apprentice funding rules (to enable employers to use their own funds to bring forward on-line training for furloughed staff), through
  • targeted public procurement (using social values legislation), to
  • reviving individual learning accounts, (this time tied to vouchers for accredited courses, with employer driven quality control of both course and provider).

But which are worth working up into policy proposals for central and/or local government?

3) The structure of Education, Training and Skills Markets is changing

 The fragmentation of global supply chains, sharp reductions in physical travel and the hassle of getting those educated/trained elsewhere through immigration/quarantine will change the “market” for world-class skills. The focus will shift from moving people round the world to acquire and practice skills> employers will come under increasing pressure to, instead, train the “locals” to international standards to work, increasingly on- line, with “experts” who may be anywhere in the world.

Central Government and its Agencies will therefore need to give priority to ensuring that UK employers, trade associations, unions, technical/professional bodies and education/training providers help lead the consortia setting those standards – ensuring not only that they meet our needs but are piloted in the UK and rolled out faster here than there.

That will be a challenge to those whose mind sets have been constrained by the creeping extension of the Haldane Principle. This was originally intended only for University-based research but has come to dominate the UK education and training system. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater – but until the economy has recovered we have to better balance our priorities.

Those serving on our hierarchies of funding and approval committees should be re-tasked to improve information sharing on who is doing what, with what success. They should no longer tasked to try to agree what is best and should be done by all, whether or not in receipt of public funds. One size does not fit all. By the time the committees have agreed on a compromise, it will almost certainly no longer be suitable for most, if it ever was.

Local skills partnerships (bringing together Private and Public Sector employers, employment agencies and training providers alongside Universities, Colleges and Schools) are likely to be very much more successful in getting large numbers of school-leavers and unemployed into the jobs of the future than nationally planned, co-ordinated, standardised initiatives.  Those partnerships are likely, however, to be very different given the variety of local  socio-political and economic structures, including but not “just” metropolitan, urban, rural. The population of Plymouth is similar to that of Salford . Both have strong traditions of local partnership. But the similarities probably stop there.  The Plymouth tradition of local and global partnerships puts it in a very different place to Salford, which is part of the Greater Manchester regional metropolis.

Given such variety, the promotion of locally led partnerships will require changing the role of Central Government and national agencies from setting targets, standards and mandating compliance to facilitating and supporting local participation in national and international consortia, with priorities and provision tailored to local travel to fit work/training areas.

Those “areas” will increasingly be determined by access to broadband rather than physical accommodation or public transport.

That could lead to painful transitions for Towns and Cities whose economies have come to depend on large numbers of resident students or inflows of commuters. Some (like Bristol) are already using the University data centre and educational networks and facilities as hubs for smart city pilots in partnership with local industry. Others have been working with players like City Fibre to pull forward the creation of dark fibre infrastructures to compete with the proprietary networks of BT and Virgin.

Meanwhile the Joint Academic Network, linking UK Universities, Research Centres, Science Parks, Colleges and the schools served by members of  the National Education Network  provides the UK with a unique “future proof” communications utility which already supports the protocols of the future, like IPV6 and the test beds for 5G.

The pieces are in place for the UK to leapfrog into the future, with local initiatives having easy access to partners and resources around the world as well as to joined-up local and national markets, giving them the necessary critical mass to achieve scale for their own offerings.

Of course  they will need support, including preferential purchasing using social values legislation, to protect them from the predatory behaviour of dominant players and those supported by their own governments. But the biggest need will probably be protection from the howls in the media about “post code lotteries”, alias local variations to meet local needs.

4) Your Action Plan

 Join and Support one or more of the groups organising co-operation to not only produce ideas to put to Central and Local Government, but also to pilot and test them, locally and/or nationally.

The current opportunities include:

5) Background Analysis

5.1) Education and training have moved on-line, opening up a gulf between those with supported on-line access and those without.

A report by the Sutton Trust indicated both the speed with which schools went on-line and the gaps that opened up. They found that only a third of children were signed up to on-line learning. Pupils at independent schools were twice as likely to do so. There was another gap between schools in affluent area and the rest. When it came to parental support there was a similar gap between those with higher level qualifications  and those without.  There was also the gap between those with laptops and bedrooms of their own and those who had to share with siblings and/or parents.

Since that report was published it is apparent that the gaps have widened, not narrowed, with many parents finding it ever harder to help educate their children. Those with specials needs have  suffered particularly badly.

The Department for Education brought forward action to help schools and pupils with technology including via the Education Technology programme  supported by London Grid for Learning (which had upgraded broadband connections to over a thousand schools in the six months before the outbreak) and Sheffield Hallam University.

Such actions help address the immediate problem but highlight the longer term divide between schools with and without full fibre broadband connections, including for remote access by teachers and pupils. There is also the problem of pupils who will still not have access to safe study areas after their school has re-opened.

Until all these issues are addressed we will see a growing gulf between digital haves and have-nots:

  • schools where teachers can focus on education (including social behaviour and interaction) with pupils using technology to acquire/demonstrate knowledge/competence at their own pace


  • schools where teachers struggle to keep order and achieve basic literacy/numeracy for all, unable to use technology to help occupy/educate those outside the mainstream.

The closure of home-work clubs and support activities for those excluded from mainstream education further increases problems of isolation and deprivation and increases the risk of outbreaks of disorder/violence among those with neither jobs nor education opportunities.

5.2 The new normal also be very different for Colleges and Universities

Colleges and Universities face similar problems with the added risk of financial implosion among those unable/unwilling to move their students and courses on-line .  Those already in difficulty will face the stresses of re-opening and “getting back to normal” after the lock down lifts. These  problems will be exacerbated by falls in the number of new students   from home and abroad.

If the joys of “undistanced” social life will not form part of the “new normal” we can expect many more potential students to prefer less expensive, local, access to higher education, including on-line via the Open University and/or graduate apprenticeships, to incurring debts they may never repay.  The fall in full-time student numbers, predicted as evidence began to emerge that Graduate Apprenticeships were a better financial option for most, has been expedited.

So how can the resultant “spare capacity” be “redeployed” to help prevent the return of mass unemployment (including those in with no job to go back to) by providing flexible, innovative, blended learning programmes?

How do we avoid the need to make large numbers of academic and support staff redundant by redeploying them to help run the education and training programmes of the future?.

How do we enable Colleges and Universities to respond to the opportunity to instead help employers move staff from dead and dying jobs to growing industries requiring skills that (even before Covid) were changing faster than the timescales for academic funding agencies to agree a new course or curriculum?

The headline answer is “to build on what some are them were already doing”.

We can expect an acceleration of the pursuit of other income sources, from

  • training and consultancy for local employers, (including to upgrade and renew the skills of former graduates and professionals), through
  • the off-the-job component of graduate- and post graduate- apprenticeships to
  • learning for leisure – e.g. residential culture courses for pensioners no longer willing to risk a cruise or overseas tour.

We have also seen what can be done as Universities worked with Local Enterprise Partnerships and Resilience Forums , to respond to the needs of the Hospitals and Care homes that serve their communities, at the same time as working with global consortia, looking collectively to find better ways of addressing similar challenges around the world.

The issue is to give the Universities, Colleges, Schools, Employers, Trades Unions and Local Government the freedom and motivation to organize similarly positive and constructive responses to the longer term challenges ahead.

Here the role of groups like the Committee for the Defence of British Universities will be critical. I would like to think their priority will be to defend the Universities from attempts to constrain their freedom to experiment with new ways of surviving as hubs of independent learning and creativity into the decade after next (not just the year after next).     

5.3 Importing skills instead of retraining the local unemployed will be politically unacceptable.

The importation of skills in short supply around the world will no longer be politically unacceptable. Those calling for visas and quarantine bypasses risk seriously adverse publicity unless they provide evidence as to how these will open up jobs and training opportunities for the new UK unemployed.

We need, instead, to rapidly expand the frameworks for organising short order programmes to retrain large numbers made redundant as whole sectors, from hospitality to aerospace, shrink. That should include learning from past exercises when Trades Union learning representatives and Recruitment and Employment agencies worked together to organize retraining and placement programmes after major employers have had to “retrench” to avoid going down completely.

This time the problems are on a larger scale, in parallel, across many industries and employers. But the principles are the same.

5.4  We should begin with those whose skills are atrophying in furlough or will no longer be needed when they emerge.

UK economic recovery after lockdown will require remotivating and reskilling several million shell-shocked and/or angry unemployed/furloughed men and women whose brains have atrophied except for decorating, gardening and binge-watching box sets, or become frazzled looking after children and vulnerable relatives.   According to Ipsos Mori barely 9% have been using their new found leisure to acquire new skills and 6% to acquire new languages.

The free sites and services from Future Learn (part of the Open University,   Google Digital Training, Microsoft Digital Literacy, BT (Skills for Tomorrow), the Huawei Academy, Lloyds Bank Academy, Natwest Dream Bigger , Good Things Learn My Way   and others are invaluable in helping get those in furlough onto the first rungs of a new career. But the focus on what is available “at no charge “risks undermining the economics of those programmes that lead further up the careers ladder.

Most of the providers of higher level, on-line, technical and professional content and courses have seen a collapse in revenues as in-house and external corporate training has collapsed. Those working from home are too busy while the HR and training departments, which might have been organising training for those in furlough, are overloaded – supporting home-based workers, or are themselves in furlough.

The government guidance states that furloughed employees can take part in volunteer work or training.  Other articles (e.g. here and here) reference Government advice that “Furloughed employees can engage in training, as long as an undertaking the training the employee does not provide services or generate revenue for, or on behalf of their organisation.  Furloughed employees should be encouraged to undertake training”.

An unfortunate side effect of such advice  is that the corporate e-mails addresses giving access to on-house programmes have commonly been suspended for those in furlough, lest they be used to   “provide services or generate revenue” and the employer be accused of fraud.

5.5 Many of the  building blocks are already in place

In London, providers like Digital Skills Solutions  (the digital arm of Newham College which also runs  apprenticeship programmes for player O2) , not only moved their apprenticeship programmes on-line but have also moved other, previously classroom-based courses, on-line.

Further west, Bluescreen IT  (which runs the cyberskills incubator in Plymouth) not only put its entire course  portfolio online, with any unbooked places on offer free to those living locally (Devon and Somerset only) it has begun running on-line careers events with Comptia for target audiences  for whom Government funding is available e.g.  Veterans .

Government should start building on such initiatives now, i.e. before lockdown is over, to help get some of the eight million now unemployed or in furlough on the path back to gainful employment, not just living on benefits and/or volunteering, as soon as we begin to come out of lockdown, however hesitant, partial and drawn out the process.

5.6 The needs go far wider than Digital

Such initiatives should not be confined to Digital or Cyber Skills.

Apparently over 50,000 of those stuck at home, educating their children, have enquired about careers in teaching . Where are the programmes to recruit them as apprentice teachers – beginning by helping with the socially distanced summer schools, overflowing into village halls and community centres, that will be needed to help “recover” the education of our children?

Relying on immigrants for the NHS and care sectors will soon be politically unacceptable if large numbers of Britons, some with high level skills whose employer or industry has imploded, are out of work.

Apparently over 26,000 student nurse, doctors and other NHS staff have been redeployed to front line roles to help cope with Covid. After the lockdown there will be a massive waiting list for non-Covid medical treatment, some of it increasingly urgent. Programmes like the NHS Nursing apprenticeships will need rapid overhaul, e.g. making use of on-the-job blended learning in place of the unpopular academic off-the-job modules, to help overcome the known recruitment and retention problems.

The pressures to revive local production (from agriculture and food to automotive and pharmaceutical, let alone medical equipment and supplies) and reduce reliance on vulnerable supply chains will similarly require expansion of vocational training capacity across the UK. Once again we should be looking to use technology-assisted blended learning to make best use of scarce teaching skills and get students productive and/or revenue earning as soon as practical.

A particular need will be to rapidly expand the UK supply of the construction skills to build and maintain full fibre and wireless communications. In this context it is good to see that some network maintenance and construction training providers, like CNET Training, have already re-opened their training operations.

This links to the need to open up a massive expansion of UK construction industry skills in general as we can no longer rely on importing these through across immigration and quarantine barriers, even if this was politically acceptable at a time of mass unemployment.

There will not be time to allow such programmes to grind though Haldane-like research programme, curriculum planning, funding approval and other committees. Short-order, Industry strength market research should take the place of lengthy consultation processes. This will be much easier if we, once again, build in what already exists.

Many of the former Sector Skills Councils joined forces with the National Skills Academies to form FISSS, a collective of employer funded quality control consortia, organising and accrediting programmes. Another  employer led consortium, TP Degrees rescued the ITMB, now offered by a dozen Universities. This consortium also accredits undergraduate degree level apprenticeships with two dozen Universities and post-graduate apprenticeships with a dozen.

Meanwhile somewhere over 10% of SMEs are in the supply/distribution chains of large employers or are in franchises which include training and support as part of the package.

Before the Covid lockdown the necessary employer-driven frameworks were evolving alongside those driven by trade associations and professional bodies. The need is to recognise them and require anyone bidding for public funding to have their support and/or that of an equivalent critical mass of employers, public and/or private sector. There is also a need to engage with the Trades Unions and their learning officers, including to help provide pastoral care and support for apprentices, particularly those in organisations too small to have effective in-house processes.

6) Possible Actions include

1) A furlough training voucher programme which makes it easier for employers to ensure their employees are following courses with reputable providers (e.g. those already used by the organization or accredited for existing government programmes) without running the risk of being accused of fraud if the access is organized via corporate e-mails.

2) Require ALL those planning public sector procurements to use UK  Social Values legislation to include local employment, job creation and reskilling/training in their OJEU notices – not just nominal lowest price. It is the failure to do so which has led, inter alia, to our dependence on high risk pan-EU, let alone global, supply chains for PPE etc.

3) Enable/encourage Universities, Colleges and Local Authorities to “co-host” local skills partnerships (in partnership with LEPs, Local Resilience Forums etc.) which bring together commercial training providers, recruitment and employment agencies, trades unions and employers (public and private, large and small) to provide the furloughed and unemployed, as well as school leavers and NEETs, with skills needed locally – beginning by offering existing international, employer-recognised, qualifications for skills already in short supply around the world.

4) Devolve the implementation of an “apprenticeship guarantee programme” to such partnerships, with joined up guidance on the support available to  businesses  and to education providers and children’s social care . This needs to include how to identify whether the training has been procured under Policy Note 02/20 , which can  limit further Government support to the provider(s).

5) Put full-fibre broadband before roads and railways in infrastructure investment. Add a programme to enable networked community access to the skills of future via community learning centres (local schools, libraries, pubs and clubs) for those who cannot readily learn at home or workplace – because they have to share their bedroom, let alone kitchen/diner with parents and siblings.

6) Use JANET, the Open University and the Grids for Learning (which provide broadband and content to schools) to create the world’s largest seamless, on-line market for world-class education and training content, skills/aptitude assessment and careers advice driven by skills “vouchers” for the newly unemployed.

7) Adopt in full the House of Lords recommendations for the reform of IR35, particularly its restrictions on offsetting training to acquire new skills against current tax,  to facilitate recovery around flexible and portfolio employment.

8) Abolish VAT on property improvement and update the relevant building regulations as necessary to encourage renovation and conversion programmes, large and small, linked to construction industry apprenticeships, instead of current rip-down and replace programmes.


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