Matching flexibility in work in the skills system

14 July 2017

The UK has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world. Self employment is rising, as is part time working, and developments in technology have facilitated new business models and innovative forms of working – with an estimated 1.3 million people now working in the gig economy. Yet, as the Taylor Review, published earlier this week, recognises “while work has become more flexible, too often learning and skills does not match this flexibility”.

As my colleague, Liz Davies, blogged earlier in the week, L&W is delighted to be working with Timewise, Trust for London and the Young Women’s Trust to develop a model for flexible apprenticeships. However, even if we were to see a substantial growth in part-time and flexible apprenticeships, it is important to recognise that an apprenticeship is not suitable for everyone – those who are self-employed can’t apprentice themselves – and that most workplace skills development does not require the scale and duration of training that is assumed within the apprenticeship programme. It is therefore critical that the learning and skills system also provides flexibility in its wider offer to employers and learners.

The introduction of Advanced Learner Loans in 2013 was designed, in part, to do just this. By creating a vehicle to support greater individual investment, it was anticipated that providers would become more strongly orientated to meeting the needs of learners and responding to their demands.  In reality, the picture has been much different. Since their introduction, learning covered by loans has fallen by one-third leaving the budget consistently under spent. There are many reasons behind this including: low levels of awareness about loans, lack of information on the returns to training, and a restriction of their use to full qualifications. It is also true, however, that not all providers have recognised and embraced the need to develop their offer to match the changing world of work. As part of our flagship programme, Ambition London, we are working with a number of colleges and private training providers to address some of these challenges.

Given the obvious shortcomings in our experience of Advanced Learner Loans, I was encouraged that the Review did not resort to calling for the scrapping of any mechanism to support individuals to invest in their own learning. Instead, it endorses proposals for Personal Learning Accounts, suggesting that we should “explore a new approach to learning accounts, perhaps with an initial focus on those with the longest working record, but who need to retrain and those in receipt of Universal Credit”.

The new £40m Lifelong Learning Fund, trailed in Building an Industrial Strategy is a great starting point for thinking about how we might take this forward. We share Matthew Taylor’s view that lifelong learning is critical in supporting individuals to respond to and shape their experience of work, and look forward to working collectively with government, employers, the education sector and wider civic society to revitalise lifelong learning.