Liz Truss is our new Prime Minister, but what are her views on further education and skills?

Announcements so far this year indicated that Boris Johnson’s administration understood the need to boost skills and technical education following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a further education college group, this is very welcome, as we know how vital colleges are to the Government’s skills agenda.

But will this continue under Liz Truss’s leadership?

We’ve taken a dive into her views and actions on further education, skills and apprenticeships, during her parliamentary career.

Liz Truss is, we believe, the first Prime Minister to have attended a comprehensive school – Roundhay School in Leeds. During the leadership race she said that the quality of education she received there “let down” students, with its “low expectations, poor educational standards and lack of opportunity” – assertions which have been disputed by someone who was at the school with her. And, however poor it may have been, her schooling did help her get into Oxford University, where she read the same subject (Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE)) as her leadership rival Rishi Sunak.

In 2011, she expressed her opinions on technical education. She wrote in Conservative Home that England was behind other developed countries on the amount of academic training required for technical jobs. Where English and maths are only a requirement to take until 16 years old in the UK, pupils in similar countries must take them until they are 18. At the time, she said she supported an English Baccalaureate and believed this should be an option for all students.

Liz Truss has some education Ministerial experience. She was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare from September 2012 to July 2014, when her responsibilities included qualifications, assessments and curriculum reform, behaviour and attendance. During her tenure, in 2013, she announced proposals to reform A Levels by scrapping AS levels and having the examinations at the end of the two-year course. She also fought to improve British standards in maths.

During the leadership race Truss ‘pitched’ herself as the “education prime minister”, saying:

“my mission in politics is to give every child, every person, the best opportunity to succeed, and for their success in life to depend solely on their hard work and talents, not their background or where they are from” – such opportunity she ‘alleges’ were not initially available to her.

Recent proposals on education

It has been reported that Truss told the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs that if she became Prime Minister, she would end the ban on grammar schools. This proposal is welcomed by many – especially in the Conservative party – but there is evidence to suggest that while grammar schools may stretch brighter pupils, they increase inequality overall as the attainment of other pupils in other schools suffers.

On universities, she has proposed that all students who receive 3 A*s at A-Level to automatically be offered an interview at Oxford or Cambridge University, to make Oxbridge more accessible. This idea has already faced criticism, as those who attend private schools and the best state schools are more likely to achieve such grades – inevitably still excluding less-privileged students.

She has also stated that she would reform the university admissions system to a post-qualification admission system – meaning that students apply to university after they receive their A-Level results, rather than getting offers based off predicted grades. A post-qualification admission system has already failed to gain support in Parliament due to the additional bureaucracy and pressure on institutions and the academic calendar.

Looking forward

Mrs Truss and her new Ministerial team have a large in-tray. With the cost of living crisis raging, the NHS in trouble and the prospect of a multi-year, multi-billion pound bill to stave-off the worst effects of the energy crisis, it is perhaps not surprising that the government do not yet have a solid plan to support further education and enable it to deliver the skills that UK plc needs.

And her proposed tax cuts might make matters worse. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the proposed tax cuts and corporate tax incentives, will initially lead to a loss of at least £30billion per year in tax receipts – losses which will probably not be offset by the rise in investment that she anticipates would result.

At CCCG we will be sure to engage with the new Prime Minister, as well as her new Secretary of State for Education Kit Malthouse (welcome to the best job in Government!) and his education Ministerial team – to do all we can to share with them the importance of further education to the future skills of our population and our nation’s success.

Three asks that we think should be on the new PM’s desk, addressing further education and skills are:

  1. Free courses for adults up to Level 4
  2. Allowing for greater operational freedom for further education colleges to help them to be more financially sustainable organisations
  3. A real focus on apprenticeships and reforming the apprenticeship levy, to make apprenticeships more accessible to Small and Medium Enterprise (SMEs) and students.

We are hosting a breakfast event at the Conservative Party Conference on Monday 3rd October in partnership with BusinessLDN (formally London First). We have invited key Conservative stakeholders, education providers and businesses to discuss levelling up and the skills agenda, so we look forward to these conversations and where the attendees see the education and skills sector going forward.

How can Levelling Up help tackle the UK’s skills shortage?

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK hard – in London alone, unemployment rose to 7% in 2021. Through Levelling up and the skills agenda, the Government have announced a range of initiatives to help the UK recover, supporting people to up-skill and re-skill in the changing job market.

In light of the cost-of-living crisis, the talent-drain that has resulted from the UK’s departure from the EU’s single market and the after-effects on labour markets of the COVID-19 pandemic, boosting Britain’s skills is more important now than ever before. According to research by the accountancy firm BDO, some 26% of businesses say that finding staff with the right skills will be their biggest challenge over the coming months.

Levelling up can play a useful role in this process. Although it’s often categorised as a regional, ‘not in London or the south east’ issue, our experience as London’s largest group of further education colleges tells us that it doesn’t matter where ‘under-skilled’ people live – their needs, and the challenges that they face, are similar. Without key skills (be they, for example, basic literacy and numeracy; digital skills; or even more advanced technical skills to gain work in high-tech industries or the green economy), thousands of people face being left behind, excluded from the workforce and with only a lifetime of poorly paid and insecure work to look forward to.

What is Levelling up?

The Levelling up White Paper, released in February 2022, sets out how the Government plan to spread opportunity throughout the UK. While it is important to challenge geographical inequality in tackling the imbalance we see within the UK, the Government’s Levelling up plans do not take into account the fact that poverty and lack of opportunity is found even in wealthy areas.

The White Paper promises a “moral, social and economic” programme for the Government to follow, to improve opportunities and productivity for many parts of the country, but it does not address the needs of Londoners. London is used in the White Paper as a place of comparison – one with high levels of economic and social standards. Although this is true to a degree, many Londoners live (and learn) in some of the country’s most deprived areas – and this cannot be ignored. So, as well as improving regional inequality, levelling up must also help the most disadvantaged communities within our major cities and towns.

Cost-of-living crisis

The cost-of-living crisis, like Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic before it, highlights again just how important skills are for the people of this country and, if anything, makes the need and demand for new skills even more urgent. With rises in the cost-of-living and a predicted recession on the horizon, more people will lose their jobs and will need to re-skill or up-skill to gain sustainable employment. No community will go untouched.

So what’s to be done?

As well as their Levelling up White Paper, the Government have launched a range of ideas and initiatives in the last 18 months, including Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs). Enshrined in law in the 2022 Skills and Post-16 Education Act, LSIPs are coalitions of education providers, local/mayoral authorities, local businesses and business groups, and other local stakeholders, which will set out the key priorities and changes needed in a local area to allow local post-16 technical education and training provision to be more responsive to the changing needs of the local labour market.

The Government are expecting the roll out of LSIPs to have concluded by 2023 and have set aside £20.9 million for 38 areas including 10 mayoral combined authorities, the Greater London Authority and 27 local enterprise partnership areas. We will see in the next year how these developments progress and if they succeed in helping local businesses fill their skills gaps.

Supporting Further Education colleges to plug the nation’s skills gaps

As London’s largest further education college group, Capital City College Group know the vital role that colleges play in re-skilling and up-skilling their students and the positive impact that this has on their communities, as well as the key role that employers play in our students’ success. We already have strong partnerships with well over 900 employers every year, both through our delivery of apprenticeships and through work placements, paid internships and other activities. We fully intend to work in, or with, London’s Local Skills Improvement Plan, to ensure that the skills we teach are in tune with the needs of London’s labour market – and so that our, and our students’, voices can be heard.

While these recent initiatives are welcome, further education colleges have long been an after-thought for Governments, falling behind schools and Higher Education, both in respect and funding. If the Government is committed in their pledge to level-up the country and improve skills, they must acknowledge further education colleges as a key partner in the delivery of these vital skills and fund the sector accordingly.

Stay-tuned: Party Conferences

In September and October, we will be hosting breakfast events at both the Labour and Conservative Party conferences, where we will continue these discussions, as well as exploring the role of apprenticeships in Levelling up. In partnership with BusinessLDN (previously London First), we have invited key political and sector stakeholders to join us, to share their views on Levelling up and the skills agenda. Keep updated with developments and discussions here, and on our Twitter and LinkedIn feeds.