Government reveals 400 free courses to boost skills after pandemic

Experts welcome announcement as a ‘positive step’ but lament lack of qualifications in some sectors hit hardest by Covid 

The government has released a list of nearly 400 free courses to be offered to adults without A-levels as part of its plan to develop in-demand skills after the pandemic.

The courses – available to adults without a full qualification at Level 3 or A-level equivalent from April 2021 – have been selected to help meet the needs of the economy and will be under regular review as the economy changes, the Department for Education has said.

The government has estimated that “tens of thousands” of adults will be able to benefit from the fully funded courses, which mark the first major announcement as part of what prime minister Boris Johnson has dubbed his ‘lifetime skills guarantee’.

Jane Hickie, managing director of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said the latest announcement was a “positive step”. But, she said, some of the sectors that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic have been left off.

“The inclusion of adult care on the qualifications list is welcome and vital in terms of attracting more home-grown talent to the sector after Brexit,” said Hickie. “But we can’t fail to hide our disappointment that hospitality and retail have been left off when these sectors are being hit so hard by the effects of the pandemic.”

The new development was welcomed by David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, who said the breadth of courses available – which include essential services such as child and social care, engineering, agriculture and construction – would be “vital in supporting rural and urban economies” build back.

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The courses will take £95m out of the £2.5bn National Skills Fund, but Hickie warned that “time is short” for making the required funding available to providers and colleges, adding that the Education and Skills Funding Agency and mayoral combined authorities should take care that they are awarding it to those with a “good track record of delivery”.

“In normal times, providers and colleges should be required to bid for this funding,” said Hickie, who proposed a long-term solution that could involve giving learners purchasing power through skills accounts. “This would help the sector respond directly to individual learner demand and minimise the risk of public money being wasted.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson urged “all those eligible” to start thinking about their next steps. “Throughout our lives we may all need to boost our skills, or gain new ones,” he said. “These free qualifications will help open doors to better employment opportunities for thousands of adults and support businesses to access the workforce they need to grow.”