Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, Report Stage, House of Commons, 21 February 2021

While we support the Bill’s aim to make the skills system more responsive to employers’ needs, the reforms need to be implemented as part of an integrated, place-based approach.


Key messages

  • Good jobs and career opportunities where people live are central to the Government’s levelling up ambitions. Adults and young people deserve access to quality education and training opportunities provided by a joined up, place-based employment, skills and careers system.
  • Local government – local authorities (LAs) and mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) – have a crucial role in making the skills and employment system work for their areas, and have wide-ranging functions and expertise in the skills system. During the pandemic, councils were trusted and relied upon by government to coordinate employment and skills provision locally.
  • While we support the Bill’s aim to make the skills system more responsive to employers’ needs, the reforms need to be implemented as part of an integrated, place-based approach. We remain concerned that the Government not set out a clear role for local authorities in engaging with Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs) to deliver Local Skills Improvement Plans. In parallel, the Government amended the Bill to give MCAs a greater but still limited role, by providing that ERBs must give “due consideration” to the views of Mayoral Combined Authorities and the Greater London Authority during the development of an LSIP.
  • Effective local partnership working between Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs), local authorities and MCAs, their Further Education (FE) provider base and other local partners will be needed to shape a joined-up and coherent local skills offer and successfully align LSIPs with other local place-based strategies (employment and skills, environmental, economic, inward investment), and infrastructure spend given their new lead authority role in the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Without this, the reforms risk creating an even more fragmented skills system, with different providers subject to different skills plans, a lack of progression pathways for learners and no local democratic accountability for the outcomes LSIPs deliver.
  • To deliver the best outcomes for local areas, local government should have a seat at the table to work in partnership with ERBs and directly contribute their expertise – both as place leaders and deliverers of adult and community learning. In practice, many councils are already working with their Chambers of Commerce in trailblazer areas to support them to take on the ERB role. As much of local labour market intelligence sits with local authorities, they spent time and capacity relaying this expertise to other organisations. It is therefore unhelpful that this role is not recognised and facilitated within the Bill, as it could risk LAs not having the opportunity to provide insight as LSIPs are operationalised.
  • As it stands, the only route for local authorities to have a strengthened role in LSIPs is through devolution. We are concerned by this principle given that devolution deals take time and only around half of the population are currently covered by them. Irrespective of whether a local authority has devolution or not, it should be a core and strategic partner and have the ability to influence LSIPs.
  • MCAs already lead adult skills provision in devolved areas. Councils should also be empowered to coordinate an integrated skills and employment offer for their areas through a new ‘Community Skills Lead’ role, with strategic responsibility to plan adult education. This would enable them to work with the proposed ERBs and their provider base to better coordinate provision and align pathways of progression for learners.
  • Provision for Level 3 (A-Level or equivalent) and above courses within the Bill are welcome, but too many adults do not have a Level 2 (GSCE or equivalent) and will be unable to access this offer. To truly level up, urgent investment in skills at Level 2 and below is needed. The complementary role of local authority adult education provision is integral to a joined up local provider base and should be properly resourced and recognised in FE reforms.
  • The Bill’s introduction of a National Provider Register should not impede councils and devolved authorities’ ability to take a place-based approach to provision and deliver on local needs. MCAs, which have devolved responsibilities for skills procurement, should be excluded from the register.
  • Councils and MCAs are ambitious to design and join up local provision to create a local, integrated skills and employment offers tailored to the needs of local businesses and residents. We want to work with Government to ensure the Bill and wider reforms utilises councils and MCAs’ expertise in the skills system to deliver the best outcomes for every community. We continue to call on the Government to back and trial Work Local to be a blueprint for skills devolution.

Amendment statements

Amendment NC2, tabled by Robert Halfon MP, would offer every person the right to free education on an approved course up to Level 3 and ringfence apprenticeship funding for young people.

  • Subsection 1 of this amendment would give any person with the right to free education on an approved course up to Level 3, supplied by an approved provider of further or technical education if they have not already studied at that level.
  • Additionally, the amendment would ensure training providers receive automatic in-year funding for any student covered by this provision from the Adult Education Budget, at a tariff rate set by the Secretary of State.
  • Subjection 3 of the amendment would also introduce a new requirement for employers who receive apprenticeship funding to spend at least two thirds of that funding on people who begin apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3 before the age of 25.

LGA view

  • We support subsection 1 of the amendment which would give all adults the right to access free education up until Level 3, on the condition that any new entitlements are supported with new funding. There would also need to be extensive discussion with MCAs who have devolved funding of AEB.
  • The Government’s commitment to offer all adults a flexible, lifelong access to train for a Level 3 (A-Level of equivalent) in-demand qualification through the Lifelong Skills Guarantee is welcome. However, too many adults do not have a Level 2 (GSCE or equivalent) qualification and will be unable to access this offer. To truly level up, we urgently need to invest in expanding access to training opportunities at Level 2 and below. A mixed and balanced skills funding offer, which invests in community skills, basic and functional skills, technical skills, and higher-level skills, will be essential for addressing inequalities and supporting those with the fewest qualifications.
     
  • Funding for adult skills at Level 2 and below mainly comes from the £1.5 billion annual Adult Education Budget (AEB), which has been reduced by 50 per cent over the last decade. It is therefore vital that any expansion of the free skills offer up to level 3, comes with new funding. Without new funding to support the new entitlements, this amendment would reduce the overall pot of funding available to councils and undermine their ability to respond to local priorities and tackle skills gaps. We are calling for Adult Education Budget funding to be as minimum, be restored to £3 Billion a year and fully devolved to local authorities and MCAs to target provision to local needs.
     
  • We do not support subsection 3 of the amendment, which would ringfence two thirds of apprenticeship funding for those under the age of 25. While we recognise the need to boost training opportunities for young people, this clause will not resolve the current systemic issues which act as a barrier to increasing apprenticeship starts among under 25s. However, it could risk undermining the vital contribution of apprenticeships to upskilling people of all ages and have unintended consequences that could result in fewer overall apprenticeship starts.
     
  • Additionally, ringfencing apprenticeship funding would undermine councils’ abilities to fill skills gaps in their own workforce and risk exacerbating existing workforce challenges, for example in social care. Many skills gaps which local government faces are at intermediate and higher levels, such as social workers, environmental health and public health officers. It is therefore vital that councils retain flexibility to use the Levy to fill these gaps.
     
  • To unlock more apprenticeship places, the LGA has long called for root and branch reform of the apprenticeship Levy. At present, there are key barriers in the system which prevent employers from spending their levy Funds, which has resulted in a significant amount of Levy funding being returned to the Treasury: £250 million (2020/2021), and £330 million (2019/20). Without wider reform of the apprenticeship Levy, this amendment risks businesses returning even more expired funds to the Department of Education, if they cannot attract enough young people to take up apprenticeship places.
     
  • Currently, levy funding can only be spent on training and not the other costs employers incur, such as apprentice’s salaries, administration costs and any additional learning support that apprentices may need to be apprenticeship-ready. To unlock unspent funding and boost the number apprenticeship places, the Government should allow employers to use Levy funding more flexibly to meet these additional costs. We are also calling for:
    • Councils to be empowered to work with Government to co-design plans to spend unspent Levy funds
    • Strengthened strategic planning, by empowering councils to align apprenticeship activity to local skills strategies, paving the way for local partnerships to address supply and demand side issues and widen participation to disadvantaged groups and specific cohorts.
    • An extension of the two-year limit which businesses have to spend Levy funds, where apprenticeship standards have just been approved or they are still in development.
       
  • The Government should also consider targeted action to address other factors which have contributed to the fall in apprenticeship starts among under 25s and boost take-up, including:
    • Replacing popular apprenticeship frameworks, which were removed, with equivalent standards. For example, the Business Administration level 2 apprenticeship, which was an extremely popular entry-level qualification for young people, was removed and has not yet been replaced with an adequate equivalent.
    • Ensuring apprenticeships are a financially viable option for all young people. Young people who do not have financial support from their parents may instead chose to enter direct employment which offers higher wages.
    • Ensuring local apprenticeship options are being adequately communicated to pupils through quality independent careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG).

Amendment 14, tabled by Toby Perkins MP, which provides for local authorities to give consent in the designation of employer representative bodies.

  • This amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State consults local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and where relevant, MCAs when designated organisations as ERBs.

LGA view

  • We support this amendment. As democratic leaders of place and local conveners, local authorities and MCAs know their areas best, have wide-ranging functions in the local economy, and have established relationships with a wide range of local employers. Local government is therefore well placed to contribute their expertise to the designation process of ERBs, and ensure they represent all local employers across all sectors and business types. This will be vital to ensure that the priorities set out in LSIPs accurately reflect the needs of local areas.

Amendment NC16 tabled by Margaret Greenwood MP, which would introduce a plan for improving levels of adult literacy.

  • This amendment would require the Secretary of State to review adult literacy levels and produce a plan for improving literacy levels within two years of the passing of the Act, and every two years thereafter.
  • The findings would be required to be published in a report and laid before Parliament, and include a breakdown of adult literacy levels by local authority area.

LGA view

  • Through their Adult Community Learning (ACL) provision, councils will already work to improve adult literacy levels and will be vital to improving literacy rates. ACL provision helps over 600,000 adults – including some of our hardest to reach, vulnerable or isolated residents – to learn essential skills that allow them to progress into further learning and work. In practice, adults accessing ACL literacy provision will often need to access other provision, such as support with numeracy and basic digital skills, which providers build into their learning.
  • We support action to improve reporting on adult skills and a stronger commitment from Government to improve rates of adult literacy. However, we believe that this would be best achieved through a light-touch national framework that considers all three core skills (literacy, numeracy and digital skills), underpinned by local and devolved strategies with sufficient, devolved AEB funding. This will allow local areas to design and commission provision targeted to local needs and build in vital wrap around support. Elsewhere the Levelling Up White Paper opens up the possibility of fully devolving AEB to all local authority areas.

Amendment 18 tabled by Margaret Greenwood MP, which would require local authorities to run public consultations to seek views on the education and training that should be made available within a local area, to inform the development of LSIPs.

  • We support communities having their say on local skills provision. As locally democratic bodies, local authorities have their own local plans and strategies for employment and skills which are developed through extensive engagement with local partners and are democratically approved.
  • As things stand, LSIPs will be developed by Employer Representative Bodies and they will be approved by, and be directly accountable to, the Secretary of State. Local authorities, outside of devolution areas, have been given no formal role in the development of LSIPs on the face of the Bill or the LSIP trailblazer guidance. In the trailblazer guidance provided to the LSIP pilot areas, councils are simply listed as a local stakeholder that ERBs should consult during the development of LSIPs.
  • This role should be strengthened by giving local authorities a role as a core, strategic partner in LSIPs in the legislation and related guidance. We have also called for LSIPs to be strengthened through local approval and democratic oversight for the outcomes they deliver. There are various ways democratic accountability can be built into LSIPs to provide oversight and ensure they are delivering on local areas’ needs, for example through scrutiny committees or local employment and skills boards. 
  • Without securing this role for local authorities and without additional funding, it would be challenging for councils to fulfil the role of running public consultations that deliver adequate public engagement with the LSIP process.  

Amendment 7 tabled by Chris Skidmore, which would give councils oversight of the provision of careers advice in schools.

  • This amendment would give Local Authorities oversight of the provisions in subsection (2A) and subsection (5), which relate to the provision of information about technical education and training in schools.
  • Subsection (2B) requires the proprietors of schools to ensure all pupils have the opportunity to meet with providers of technical education, to receive careers advice, information and guidance, at least twice. Subsection (5) requires proprietors of schools to explain how they propose to comply with these regulations.

LGA view

  • We support this amendment as a positive step towards providing all pupils with quality independent careers advice and guidance, which links to local labour markets and training opportunities. However, councils would need adequate funding and guidance to enable them to fulfil these new responsibilities.
     
  • Longer term, and as part of our ambitions for a devolved skills and employment service, councils should be empowered to co-ordinate and commission an all-age careers service, underpinned by requisite devolved funding. This new service should be organised by combined authorities where they exist, or local authorities across functional economic areas, that align with travel to work and learn patterns, allowing them to coordinate provision across institutions to meet the needs of communities and local employers.

Amendment NC5 tabled by Peter Aldous, which would require the Government to review Universal Credit conditionality to ensure unemployed adult learners in receipt of Universal Credit, remain entitled to Universal Credit if they enrol on an approved course which would support them into secure sustainable employment.

LGA view

  • We support this amendment. The LGA have previously called for adult learners to remain eligible for Universal Credit, if they enrol on a course which will help them to secure sustainable employment. Allowing people to retain their benefits when training will be vital to removing barriers for those furthest from the labour market to upskill and move into good jobs.
  • Consideration should also be given to expanding the eligibility criteria of the Universal Credit childcare cost element, to enable people in receipt of Universal Credit to access childcare while training. At present, households can only claim the childcare cost element of Universal Credit if they are in paid work or have an offer of paid work. This would prevent those who are unemployed and have children from taking up available training offers that would help them to gain skills and secure sustainable employment.

Amendment NC4 tabled by Chris Skidmore, which would require the Secretary of State to introduce a Green Skills Strategy for higher education, further education and technical education which supports the duties imposed in the Climate Change Act and meeting other environmental goals.

LGA view

  • To deliver the substantial change needed in the UK economy by 2050, local government will play a key role in facilitating technology transitions in homes and businesses and upskilling the local workforce. Many councils are already working to assess their local future green skills demand and embed green skills in their skills, environmental and economic development strategies.
  • As we outlined in our Green Skills report, the distribution of green skills that are needed, now and in the future, will be different in each area. It is therefore vital that any national strategy for green skills is light touch but crucially backed up place-based and devolved plans with requisite extra funding, which empower local areas to deliver on both national priorities and the needs of their place.

Contact

Megan Edwards, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

megan.edwards@local.gov.uk