Rebecca Garrod-Waters, CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust

At Ufi (@UfiTrust), we welcome the plans outlined in the long-awaited Skills for Jobs white paper, published on 21st January 2021 by the Department for Education. Our mission at Ufi is to champion the power of technology to improve skills for work, and we will continue to advocate for the role of quality digital technology to help enable each area outlined in the white paper;

  • Employers at the heart of post-16 skills
  • Advanced technical and higher technical skills
  • A flexible lifetime guarantee
  • Responsive providers supported by effective accountability, governance and intervention
  • Supporting outstanding teaching

It is clear that technology will underpin all of the intent within the white paper.

Employers at the heart of post-16 skills

Employer-led standards will be important to help combat the pervasive skills gap between the skills employees have, and skills employers need.

This is at the heart of our Ufi funding ethos; all of our projects must demonstrate that they are solving a real world (i.e. real workplace) problem. For example, our VocTech specialist funding call of 2019 focused on changing the workplace and tackling challenges of the 4th Industrial Revolution, as well as pathways to work. The manufacturing call had an explicit requirement for the employer as part of the team, such was our strength of belief in involving employers in solutions development. As such, we whole-heartedly welcome this development.

We must not forget those who may need alternative pathway options into employment. For example, Ufi-supported MyBe Awards are using an avatar-based digital badging platform to support those in the criminal justice system with learning pathways that feed in to clear employment outcomes.

Local skills improvement plans

We see many opportunities in which digital will support skills for jobs going forward.

For example, one proposal is to pilot “local skills improvement plans” in trailblazer local areas, exploring an approach where they are led by accredited Chambers of Commerce and other business representative organisations in collaboration with local providers, and engage employer and provider groups to ensure the most effective models of employer representation are created before wider rollout.

It is encouraging to see the recognition of place in skills development, building on the long- established work by LEPs and Combined Authorities to strengthen links between employers and training providers. Our own commissioned work with Tyton research showed that key threats to securing lower-skilled work in the UK are regional “employment voids”, as well as the more well-documented rise of automation, and globalisation leading to off-shoring.

Indeed, last year the Social Mobility Commission released a report based on research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealing that regional inequality stunts lifetime earning potential. In short, the skills gap is not experienced equally.

For example, the employment rate in the East Midlands region has witnessed a 3.6% decline since 2009, and while the unemployment claimency rate in the UK is 3.8%, certain urban centres – such as Hull (8.6%), Grimsby (7.2%), and Hartlepool (7.2%) were nearly double the national average in 2020[1].

In addition, the East Midlands experiences more of the negative impacts of the gig economy. For example, The UK’s East Midlands region employs 92,000 workers on zero-hour contracts – a 40% increase since 2018 and the highest rate in the country[2].

Our work at Ufi and through our funded projects has informed our approach to local skills improvement in this context. For example, Ufi funded the RSA’s Cities of Learning project which helps people find new learning opportunities near them, and the link with employers has been critical to development. The digital platform lets learners transform what they’ve studied into new skills, qualifications and careers. Plymouth provides one of the pilot cities, and the project has engaged over 70 employers. In addition, Digital Guild, is a great example of enabling learners to access over 1,000 hours of eLearning, develop new skills, and record their evidence using digital badges, solving some of the problems of getting the right work experience locally to meet regional employer needs.

And, importantly, our collaborative investment – The Workertech Partnership - with The Resolution Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Friends Provident Foundation, Accenture, and Trust for London, is ensuring that “employees at the heart” does not mean “employees taken for granted”.

This fund is the UK’s first-ever innovation programme to support social entrepreneurs and start-ups focused on improving conditions and career paths for workers stuck in low-paid and precarious employment. This includes Organise – an online petitioning platform that has won multiple improvements to pay, rights and conditions at work – and Earwig – a new online venture aimed at improving conditions for construction workers

Continue to support participation in English, maths, and digital training to meet employers’ needs and support people to progress in employment or further study.

Throughout our work at Ufi, we have seen how solid functional skills (English, Maths) are an imperative for employers, but one that can be learnt alongside vocational studies, and, importantly, digital skills. For example, we funded CenturyTech’s application within Further Education to help learners ace functional skills retakes so they could progress through their vocational studies confidently. (Charlie James, then Learning Technologist at Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) is in conversation with Callum Rochester, Student, BCoT at the end of this episode of The VocTech Podcast on the subject).

In addition, Dawn Smart, Apprenticeship Contract Manager at the Isle of Wight College used our VocTech Now funding to continue essential functional skills and pastoral work using Microsoft Teams during 2020. Employers found the ongoing triangulation of students, practitioners and employers, made for a more engaged apprenticeship experience so the college will be continuing with this connected approach – we are pleased to see the commitment to an ongoing flexible approach and building on the work undertaken [as a result of lockdown].

Another example of innovation in this area is the fantastic and award-winning Learning Labs, supported by Ufi VocTech Trust as part of the VocTech Seed 2017 funding round, to develop a workplace English language platform including for pilot partners Lander, an aerospace parts company and the car manufacturer, Jaguar Land Rover. The Midlands-based Learning Labs recently went on to secure a £150,000 investment from Ufi Ventures, to support their rapid growth.

College business centres within further education colleges to work with employers in a designated sector on business development and innovation.

We welcome the proposal of college business centres of innovation within further education colleges. Our own conversations with further education and employer stakeholders as part of our VocTech Challenge discovery process has illuminated what fantastic ideas and collaborations are possible when these two groups are brought in close proximity and with the right funding.

A flexible lifetime guarantee / Supporting outstanding teaching

Aspirations for a more flexible and modular provision are extremely welcome. The Ufi-funded Blended Essentials course, has been enrolled over 50,000 times on FutureLearn. Appetite for practitioner professional development in this space is encouraging, and we have seen the many longer-term benefits of flexible, blended, offerings through our COVID-response VocTech Now funding, as opposed to a simplistic return to face to face only.

Ufi-funded innovations like Cuppa, Chomp, Contextual Science, and Learning Labs have highlighted how flexible, modular micro learning, delivered at point of need, can aid professional excellence, whilst supporting greater engagement in learning across the duration of our working lives. An increase in teacher training around online and blended learning is welcome – this is critical for the future of the sector and we welcome this recognition in the white paper. Improving how teaching is delivered through digital and blended learning is something Ufi have been championing since inception. The positive impact technology can have on vocational education has been demonstrated by over 200 Ufi-funded projects.

Responsive providers supported by effective accountability, governance and intervention

The charge for more effective accountability in the vocational sector is not new. Our past conversation with Shaun Gear, Integration Adviser – Employer, Business and Industry, Ministry of Education of New Zealand, on The VocTech Podcast, reflected on this trend as part of reforms in New Zealand. We look forward to championing the best in market vocational technology through our varied initiatives including VocTeach, an early-stage online platform where vocational educators can find and share resources for their blended teaching.

[1] UK Office of National Statistics, Business Wire, Statista

[2] Tyton Ufi Annual Report 2020

Rebecca Garrod-Waters, CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust

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