Further education provides students with essential skills and qualifications, in turn contributing to tackling inequality. Our Researcher Zarin Mahmud shares the findings of our roundtable discussion exploring the sector’s potential role within the levelling up agenda.
High levels of inequality, poverty and deprivation in the city make it clear that London faces its own levelling up challenges. With the right support, further education could play an important role by driving higher skills, raising productivity, and supporting social mobility. However, over the last decade, the sector has faced the biggest drop in funding of any education sector. Such instability in funding as well as in policy on qualifications and regulation undermines the ability of further education to level up London.
On 20 July 2022, Centre for London hosted an expert roundtable to discuss these challenges, involving representatives from further education providers and local authorities. The roundtable explored how further education can contribute to levelling up London, and how to support the sector to help maximise its impact on individuals and society.
London is a hub of economic activity and opportunities for those who can access them, but many Londoners lack the skills to benefit from these opportunities. In particular, low levels of English and maths can act as a significant barrier. There are large disparities in access to opportunity across London, and roundtable participants indicated that estimates of the number of people who struggle to access education in the city may not reflect the full scale of the problem.
Impacts of further education
Further education (FE) is essential for addressing some of these problems. FE covers a vast range of courses from basic English and maths programmes to GCSEs, A-levels, Higher National Diplomas, and BTECs. By helping people gain essential academic and vocational skills or capitalise on existing qualifications, further education can provide a route to becoming economically active.
Non accredited adult learning courses such as wellbeing and digital skills courses can also make a difference economically, even if there is not an easily observable direct link to productivity. As a report on adult community education by the Further Education Trust for Leadership states, such courses play a critical role in “engaging adults from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in making the first steps into education, training and employment.” Indeed, further education can equip people with various soft skills, improve mental wellbeing and lead to greater participation in society. Our roundtable attendees stressed the need to consider how access, engagement and integration into society impacts people’s progression into jobs and higher-level skills, as well as the non-economic value of learning. But among FE courses, it is more difficult to find funding for those focused on building these “softer” skills, as demonstrating their economic impact is harder.
Supporting the FE sector
The further education sector faces many challenges. Funding is one issue that was highlighted in the roundtable. As well as the impact of cuts, participants cited trying to navigate the multiple streams of funding for further education providers as a source of struggle. At present, FE providers are allocated funds from a range of sources depending on the age of their students and the types of courses they offer. Navigating the complex and fragmented nature of education and skills funding streams can be a significant challenge for FE providers.
Attendees also strongly felt that there was instability and inconsistency in government policy around qualifications, and that a long-term plan from the government is necessary, one that is informed by more listening, research, and data. Finally, attendees called for further collaboration between different agencies, including employers and local authorities, in order to build an effective ecosystem to support those with the most need.
Few public interventions are more vital to levelling up than further education and adult learning. However, as our roundtable discussion illustrated, the institutions delivering these courses are unable to maximise their impact for individuals and for society, and therefore their contribution to levelling up. To start with, the institutions need consistent, simplified funding, coming from central government, and more stability around qualifications so that learners can recognise and understand them.
We would like to thank our roundtable attendees for giving up their valuable time to contribute to our research through this discussion.
Zarin Mahmud is a Researcher at Centre for London.