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Failing to plug skills gaps will set us back on the road to recovery

To build back better, we must have the skilled people to make our ambition a reality, writes Robert Halfon MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Putting colleges at the centre of recovery is the only way to drive us to a better, more prosperous future, with skills gaps in crucial sectors, closing, not widening.

As we reach the end of the eighth month of the pandemic, people’s attention naturally turns to how we emerge from the crisis - ensuring that people, employers and communities and not left behind.

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future report today sets the role our further education colleges can play in that agenda. As centres of lifetime learning, in supporting employers with recovery and change and in rebuilding healthy, cohesive and connected communities.

We have neglected our colleges for far too long. We have left them doing incredible work, but without the support they deserve. I see the amazing work of my local Harlow College, and I want to ensure we have that in every town. But I also know that colleges just like Harlow stand waiting to do more, with the right funding and the right support. 

To build back better, we must have the skilled people to make our ambition a reality.

Colleges train our key workers, our engineers, our builders and everyone in between, for jobs that keep this country not only ticking over - but thriving. Colleges are critical to delivering the quality apprenticeship opportunities that we will so urgently need as a key part of our economic recovery.

Getting us building again and generating jobs through initiatives like the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, which will create up to 3,000 jobs and safeguard a further 2,000 are exactly what we need to get the country moving after months of devastation.

However, with almost weekly reports stating that employers do not have the people with the right skills and expertise, there is a clear need to not only train our young people up more quickly, but retrain older people who are having to shift careers after redundancy or meet labour market needs. A recent CBI report has said that 9 out of 10 workers will need to be retrained and reskilled by 2030 onwards.

Colleges are the key to our future economic prosperity

Skills gaps across vast swathes of sectors have been holding us back for decades. As chair of the Education Select Committee, I have long called for a post-16 education and skills strategy that better meets society’s needs and gives people the skills they need to go into the sectors that desperately need them.

Ever growing gaps in areas like health and social care and construction hold us back economically and deny people the chance to get secure work to transform their lives and that of their families. It is right that the Independent Commission therefore sets out the need for ten-year skills strategy, looking at the role skills can play in driving our economic recovery and the important levelling up agenda.

Our Lifetime Skills Guarantee which begins in April, funded through the National Skills Fund will give people without an A-level or equivalent access to courses to train into better jobs.

Today’s report from the Commission on the College of the Future explains why we need to go further in our mission to support everyone to reach their full potential – making this a new, statutory right to lifetime learning.

We know these skills gaps exists, and where they are most acute. We also know that thousands more people will inevitably begin to need to access further financial support as the economic downturn bites.

The commission’s call for grants and loans to allow college students to live whilst studying will remove many of the barriers that adults face when trying to access study and training, particularly those on low incomes. Addressing childcare costs and giving additional funding to disabled students is also something that will enable even more people who are currently marginalised from upskilling to get the chance they need to get in and get on.

Much has been made of how we educate the people for these jobs and get businesses the skilled workers they need, now and in the future. Colleges are the key to our future economic prosperity. Our obsession with the three-year degree route for young people has led to an imbalance for further and technical education, that rightly is beginning to be addressed.

We have recognised that colleges are under-utilised, but what we do next is the important bit. Putting them at the centre of the recovery is the only way to drive us to a better, more prosperous future, with skills gaps in crucial sectors, closing, not widening.

Building back better means recognising that the world has changed, the country’s needs have changed and crucially what the labour market requires has shifted also. The pandemic has brought this to light more clearly than ever.

We need an education and skills system that reflects this – with our colleges at the heart.  


Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee.

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Read the most recent article written by Rob Halfon MP - The government must act now to ensure thousands of ‘ghost’ pupils return to school