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.
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.