In September 2020, the prime minister announced the details of his government’s plan for a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, including the £2.5bn National Skills Fund. In a speech at Exeter College, Boris Johnson promised to transform the skills system so that everyone has the opportunity to train and retrain in areas deemed desirable by employers. With UK unemployment figures rising to 5.0% in the three months to November 2020, addressing the labour market’s skills gap will form a critical piece of Johnson’s plan to “build back better”. While further lockdowns may have risked the progress, the purpose of the plan can only be more keenly felt.

Capital spending

The prime minister made reference in his Exeter speech to putting £1.5bn into “upgrading and improving colleges across the country, fixing the leaky ceilings” – spending that is in clear demand. According to the Association of Colleges, the further education sector spent an average of almost £1bn a year between 2010 and 2015 on buildings, land and resources, following research that identified positive returns from this kind of investment.

While some institutions will make a bid to give their building a much-needed makeover, others might be focusing on some of the other announcements. Notably, in December, the government released a list of nearly 400 free level 3 courses to be offered to adults without A-levels as part of its plan to develop in-demand skills after the pandemic. The list includes engineering, construction and childcare, and the Department for Education (DfE) commented that the list would be “reviewed regularly” to ensure it continued to match workplace demand.

All change, or gentle steps?

The approach of identifying skills gaps and building links with employers is already successful at many colleges around the UK. Lisa O’Loughlin, principal of The Manchester College, has been developing the curriculum through co-creation with employers and says its partnerships are delivering “some truly innovative offers”, including a recently launched construction scholarship programme. “This is an outcome of a consortium we’ve formed with local construction employers. Over the next few years we plan to evolve this into a physical, on-site presence for employers and to launch two new campuses,” she says.

Rather than it signalling any drastic changes to the way we operate, we’re hopeful that the National Skills Fund will enable us to advance the work we’re already doing and supplement it with further employer input

Lisa O'Loughlin, principal, The Manchester College

For The Manchester College, part of the LTE group, the announcement of the National Skills Fund and its associated funding presents the opportunity of a welcome financial boost, but not necessarily any immediate or significant change in how they approach their activities.

“We’re excited to see the details and get more of an understanding of how aspects such as the employer hubs will be implemented,” says O’Loughlin. “But rather than it signalling any drastic changes to the way we operate, we’re hopeful that the National Skills Fund will enable us to advance the work we’re already doing and supplement it with further employer input.”

Now that a list of courses has been published, many institutions will have a clearer picture of the areas where they could invest. However, Mike Boxall, further and higher education expert at PA Consulting Group, says that perhaps the most obvious direction for spending is anything that aids this kind of local partnership and network-building: “Some of the best practice I’ve seen with regard to boosting skills and employability is when college and college groups have sought to build relationships with local employers from the ground up, like this example from The Manchester College.”

Boxall suggests that colleges would be well advised to consider potential spending carefully, and to focus on investments that may help local networks. He says: “In terms of spending, I think that anything that could support this kind of network-building – information exchange systems, for example, or the digital enhancement of these – could be particularly useful going forward.”


The DfE published a white paper in January, and the sector is digesting its major goals. These are:

  • Putting employers at the heart of the system so that education and training lead to jobs that can improve productivity and fill skills gaps.

  • Investing in higher-level technical qualifications that provide a valuable alternative to a university degree.

  • Making sure people can access training and learn flexibly throughout their lives, and are well informed about what is on offer through careers support.

  • Reform of funding and accountability for providers to simplify how funds are allocated, give providers more autonomy, and ensure an effective accountability regime that delivers value for money.

  • Support for excellent teaching in further education.

Financially, the government is committing to a further £291m to support 16- to 19-year-olds and £375m as its contribution to the Plan for Jobs in 2021/22 and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

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