Adults in England without A-levels to be offered free college training

Government announces measures to help people move into areas with historic skills gaps, but experts query their ability to address the ‘vast challenges ahead’

Adults in England without an A-level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free college course to help boost their employment opportunities in a post-Covid economy, the government has announced. 

Prime minister Boris Johnson is to set out plans today (29 September) as part of his ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ – a previously announced scheme to transform England’s current training and skills system to support the country to rebuild after the pandemic.

The government has also said higher education loans will be made more flexible, allowing individuals to space their studies out across their lifetimes and to support people to retrain for the “jobs of the future”.

In his announcement today, Johnson will say the government “cannot, alas, save every job”, but that it can “give people the skills to find and create new and better jobs”.

“So my message today is that, at every stage of your life, this government will help you get the skills you need,” he will say.

As part of the package of new measures, people who do not have A-levels or an equivalent qualification will be able to study a college course in England from April 2021 paid for via a £2.5bn national skills fund. Currently, the government pays for a first A-level equivalent qualification up to the age of 23, but this is being extended to all ages for courses deemed to be of value to employers.

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Further details of which courses will meet this criteria are due to be set out next month.

Earlier this year the government launched a free online skills toolkit to help people train in digital and numeracy skills. Alongside the new lifetime skills guarantee, the toolkit is being expanded to include 62 additional courses, which are free to individuals.

The news follows the announcement last week of a new job support scheme, which will replace furlough to support ‘viable’ jobs. Firms will be able to reduce their employees’ working time to as little as a third of their regular hours, and the employee will then have their wages topped up to cover two-thirds of the pay lost by the reduction in hours, with the government and the employer paying a third each.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, outgoing director general of the CBI, welcomed the lifetime skills guarantee, describing it as an “important step forward” to help the UK recover from coronavirus. “[These measures] can help solve the most urgent skills challenge facing our generation,” Fairbairn said.

“Retraining was already a vital priority for the UK. The significant unemployment coronavirus is leaving in its wake only accelerates the need for people to develop new skills and adapt to new ways of working.” 

Fairbairn added the lifetime skills guarantee and flexible loans to support “bitesize” learning were a strong start to helping people adapt to the world of work post pandemic. But she called on the government to back these changes with “meaningful progress on evolving the apprenticeship levy into a flexible skills levy”.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Gillian Keegan, minister for skills and apprenticeships, said the new measures would help people move into jobs in areas of the economy with historic skills gaps – many of which have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“In many sectors like construction, engineering, teaching, policing, health and social care, digital [and] science, we have massive skills gaps,” Keegan said. “Those jobs are there and available, and obviously coronavirus hasn’t hit the whole economy equally and what we’re trying to do is help people to get across to those areas as quickly as possible.” 

The government’s pledge comes ahead of the furlough scheme finishing at the end of October, which many expect will lead to further waves of redundancies and a large increase in unemployment. 

Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City & Guilds Group, said the government’s new measures were too narrow in scope to tackle this, and did not address the “vast skills and jobs challenges that lie ahead”.

“How is the provision going to be flexible enough for people to fit learning around their lives and responsibilities – whether that’s childcare, caring for a relative or a part-time job?” Donnelly said, noting that any training offered needed the option of digital learning. She also said the focus needed to be on acquiring skills rather than a qualification, and that courses needed to match local demand.

Donnelly added the new programme couldn’t “be a true lifelong skills solution” if individuals were only eligible for one course. She cautioned that the scheme overlooked a large number of people who were displaced from their industries by the pandemic and needed to “completely retrain and change their skillsets”. 

The CIPD said it was calling on the government to announce a further boost to training and reskilling by investing £1bn in enhancing the Jobcentre Plus Rapid Response Service to provide bespoke sector-based training and employability support for those 250,000 workers expected to lose their jobs over the winter. 

It also urged the government to reform the apprenticeship levy to make it more flexible so firms could use it for other forms of accredited training and skills development, including for employees working reduced hours under the job support scheme or those made redundant.

Additionally, the CIPD said it would like the government to provide funding to enable employers using the job support scheme to access online training to develop the skills of workers on reduced hours when not working.