Tell Number 10 How to Promote Lifelong Training in the Digital Age

In my initial blog calling for inputs to the event to follow up on the Tell Number 10 Consultation on Lifelong Training I said I would cover some of the ideas raised during the Tell Number 10 consultation and also provide an update on the event on October 3rd (agenda here) when the programme and speakers were confirmed.

In each case the format for the proposals were: Problem, Proposal and Potential Unintended Consequences

The proposals for which I have details include:

  1. Lifelong Learning Accounts
  2. Street Corner Universities – alias Local Lifelong Learning Access Hubs and Networks
  3. Promote Inter-operable Skills Records and Passports
  4. Focus public funding/support and performance monitoring on the delivery of micro-modules to get trainees into jobs rather apprenticeships, degrees and qualifications
  5. Full fibre broadband construction skills as the critical point of leverage for levelling up access

In practice they overlap across common problems and points of leverage. I have done a little editing (to anonymous the proposals and also added a few comments in square brackets [  ].

  1. Lifelong Learning Accounts

Statement of Problem – Confusion over programmes, policies and opportunities (from work experience, through apprenticeships and degree course to update programmes), including which are relevant, reputable and lead to employment and which are a waste of time/money or even scams. Student loans are expensive and take too long to pay off, if ever. Meanwhile programmes fail to address shortages of key skills, like engineers, construction workers, HGV drivers, customer services, health or care-workers.

Proposal – An incremental programme to bring student loans, advanced learner loans  and the many other support programmes together via “Lifelong learning Accounts” akin to the Singaporean “Skills Credits” accounts, which are topped up from a variety of sources (including loans and grants from central and local government and employers) for spending only on programmes recognised by registered professional bodies, trade associations and employers seeking to recruit from them. Validated (including DNS checking) access to the database of recognised programmes would be via JISC and the Grids for Learning (as currently for UCAS, HEDD and Schools placements).

Contributions from employers and from individuals would be fully offsetable against corporate or personal tax, replacing other more complex regimes (e.g. IR35) which limit which training is eligible to that related to current employment.

To avoid the problems of fraud which destroyed the Individual learning accounts introduced by the last Labour Government, the accounts should be administered by HMRC with National Insurance, NHS, Pupil Student and other reference numbers “mapped”, after “validation”, onto the taxpayer reference number.

Potential Unintended Consequences – Those wanting to, for example, learn languages for leisure purposes, could use the accounts, provided they sign up to professionally accredited courses. The risk that such abuse might result in significant costs would be mitigated if the bulk of top up funds from government and other employers were restricted to subjects in current shortages.

2. Street Corner Universities – alias Local Lifelong Learning Access Hubs and Networks

 Statement of Problem – Lack of safe local and/or on-line access to lifelong learning. Many of those living in social housing, young or old, have limited access to comfortable, quiet, safe, learning spaces with equipment and broadband adequate for on-line learning. Often they also have limited access to safe and reliable public transport to local Colleges and Universities.

Our constituency [London] does not have local access to FE/HE. Travel to the nearest facilities requires teenagers to cross post code gang boundaries.  Local private sector secondary schools earn considerable amounts from hosting training activities in the evening, weekend and holidays. Local public sector schools also have modern premises and facilities but these are commonly little used in the evenings and at week-ends. Most also have parking facilities. The local libraries are similarly under-used and one local borough used Covid to introduce a Library Tax (books could only be taken out if reserved, books cost 50p each to reserve).

Proposal Lifelong learning hubs in every community based on local schools, libraries and community centres as necessary. [The term “Street Corner Universities” is lifted from New Labour which failed to deliver them. The DFE Select Committee has called for Lifelong Learning Centres in Every Town. This goes further. The Prince’s Trust “Safe Learning Centres” overlap. There is also a “Janet & John” proposal to use the Joint Academic network and the Schools Grids for Learning to provide such centres with secure, inter-operable, on-line access to the wealth of on-line content]

Potential unintended consequences – There will be a need to address staffing, safeguarding and insurance issues but local private sector schools have all found ways round these and derive serious revenues from out-of-hours lifelong training, learning and leisure activities.

3) Promoting Inter-operable Skills Records and Passports

Statement of Problem – The current multiplicity of pupil/student identities, achievement recording systems and skill passports is confusing to students and employers, a barrier to co-operation and career planning and an aid to skills and employment fraud.

Employers commonly expect staff to acquire skills on the job, as required to meet client needs, in order to avoid eating into billable time. Few record the training they provide, let alone map it onto common standards, lest it make it easier for them to leave. The exception is training required to be recorded for regulatory purposes (e.g Health and Safety).  In consequence the skills inventory of the existing workforce is under-recorded, leading to unnecessary external recruitment and duplication.

Proposals – Require those bidding for Government contracts to record the training and skills of their staff using published definitions/standards and require those bidding for funding to support skills programmes to similarly publish the standards for the “micro-modules” they cover.

Require bidders to also show how the standards used relate to those used by others, including the two main emerging “standards”, Europass (driving towards publication by the end of the year) and IMS Global a US not for profit supporting the protocols behind Open Badges and Comprehensive Learning Record.

A tax credit (or offset against the apprenticeship levy) for recorded inhouse training, whether or not part of a formal training programme to encourage the recording and visibility, of training and of skills acquisition.

Potential unintended consequences – Many trades and professions are grappling with definitions for skills that are in flux or evolving, e.g. Cybok for cybersecurity. There is therefore a temptation to put effort into “generic” definitions (as for NVQs) and academic “equivalences”. These may have a value to government funding agencies but are not meaningful to employers or students looking to acquire marketable skills.

4) Focus public funding/support and performance monitoring on the delivery of micro-modules to get trainees into jobs rather apprenticeships, degrees and qualifications

Statement of Problem – public funding and performance monitoring is focused on the successful completion of apprenticeship and degrees that may take years. Most employer demand is for specific skills and competences that can be acquired and demonstrated within days or weeks and upgraded incrementally using packaged micro-modules. These are now available for most construction, customer service skills in current demand and many digital skills.

Professional Bodies and Trade Associations are responding by repackaging their programmes, including degree-linked apprenticeships, into modules. Those delivering publicly funded programmes are, however, penalised if participants get jobs and leave the programme before completing the end point assessment.

The prime value of many “into work” programmes is to enable prospective employers to assess whether individuals are likely to have the necessary attitude and aptitude to invest in taking them on, given that interviews are not a good predictor for some of the talents in most demand. Such assessments can often be done within days of the start of the programme, enabling students to “drop out” and join an expedited, employer-funded programmes, penalising those who prepared them for mainstream employment.

Proposal – The measurement of performance for most publicly funded programmes should be based on the delivery of short course modules to acquire specific skills, whether or not the full course (e.g. apprenticeship or degree) into which they might (or might not) is completed.

Leaving a publicly course prematurely s to go into employment should be counted as success, not failure.

Schools should be encouraged and supported (including co-funding with employers, both public and private sector) to organise experiential workshops in co-operation with local employers to enable the latter to  watch pupils working together and decide to whom they would like to offer work experience opportunities.

Potential Unintended Consequences – There is a need to ensure a variety of tasks and projects so that potentially disruptive pupils and mature students who are not academically experienced or gifted are engaged with tasks that demonstrate their talents and aptitudes, not their problems.

5) Address full fibre broadband construction skills as the point of leverage for levelling up access

Problem – Lockdown opened up economic and social divides between those with good, safe access to on-line learning and those without. The competitors to BT, including the fast-growing SMEs who provide most of the full fibre access to multiple dwelling units and rural communities have problems connecting with those in Government (DWP/DfE etc.) who provide skills and training support and funding to meet their own needs. The BT Equinox Discounts are intended to deter ISPs from dealing with them to deliver on-line content (including education and training) over full fibre to those who would benefit most.

Proposal – DWP, DfE, DCMS, BEIS and their agencies to provide single points of contact for those wishing to use skills programmes (e.g. DWP Job Centres, Restart contractors, Careers and Enterprise Company LEP Hubs etc.) to recruit suitable trainees onto short course modules which will make them immediately employable as well as put them onto the first rungs of some of the best career paths of the future.

DfE, BEIS and DCMS to support the provision of secure inter-operability (across all UK network providers) for lifelong training content of known provenance, building on the work of JISC, the Grids for Learning and the new BCS CAS platform (due for launch on 22nd September) to develop and implement the necessary processes. CSTF to work with those involved to help inform Ministers and Officials of progress and plans.

Potential Unintended Consequences – Enhanced competition to BT may lead to its break-up, into content, infrastructure and network operation and security businesses, requiring Treasury to pick up underfunded pension obligations.