Ian Tennant works as a public affairs and corporate communications consultant at Fleishman-Hillard

The coalition one year on: Skills Policy 

On 11 May last year (2010), the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed the first coalition Government since World War II, entering uncharted territory for both the young leaders.

A year on, many things have happened that would not have been predicted:

  • A nationwide referendum on the voting system
  • Vince Cable sitting in Cabinet with his pre-election adversary George Osborne, and
  • The resignation of a Cabinet Minister only 17 days after the formation of the Government.

To cement its reforming reputation, the Government has tackled many issues head-on and is pushing through reforms in areas such as welfare reform and public sector efficiency, but the Coalition has met popular resistance in some areas, most recently NHS reform where the Government have even 'paused' the Bill to listen to concerns.

The sector has been acclimatising to a new era of austerity and localism

Although not as high profile in the national media, skills and FE have been experiencing a coalition-led restructuring and streamlining to fit the Government's vision of targeted, employer-led training, responsive to local economic needs.

The Labour era of Train to Gain, the Future Jobs Fund and the EMA has been replaced (despite Labour's protestations) by a Coalition era of apprenticeships, University Technical Colleges (UTCs), and frankly, less money.

Times have certainly changed, and the sector must change with it.

The key events since May last year for FE have been the announcements in the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Skills Strategy, the 2011 Budget, and of course the 'bonfire of the quangos'. Alongside the set piece events, there have been other reviews and consultations – such as into skills conditionality, vocational education (The Wolf Report) and the National Curriculum review.

Together, it has been a year of adjustment, and the sector has been acclimatising to a new era of austerity and localism.

Renewed focus on apprenticeships

A renewed focus on apprenticeships presents a great opportunity for the sector to showcase the value they bring to the economy, and the Government's welcoming of the Wolf Report further boosts the current opportunity to champion vocational learning.

The Government's approach to FE is also being framed by their stance on HE; BIS are attempting to improve perceptions of practical skills in comparison with academic courses. There has never been a better opportunity for FE to be championed.

With tuition fees rising, vocational training and apprenticeships could become an increasingly attractive option for school leavers, and businesses are showing more of a willingness to offer apprenticeships. Not only is this a great way for firms to recruit and plan for the future, it provides a great platform to promote their commitment to the local economy and community.

This has been underlined through several announcements by big companies cooperating with Government apprenticeship initiatives – such as the apprenticeships announced earlier this year alongside the Energy Department's Green Deal.

Is vocational education losing its stigma?

The key themes that will play out politically over the coming months and years are that:

  • Vocational education is losing its stigma in comparison to academic courses;
  • Budgets are being considerably squeezed;
  • Localism is winning the battle with centralised training; and
  • Government, training providers and business are working together more closely to deliver training opportunities at a local level.

Although there have been some arguments along the way, skills policy seems to have avoided becoming a major political flashpoint for the coalition – so far.

However, higher fees for FE learners may become a greater controversy going forward, alongside the general budget cuts. In the meantime, the sector must continue to shape the changing landscape.

Ian Tennant works as a public affairs and corporate communications consultant at Fleishman-Hillard

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