Published:

Peter Aldous is the Conservative MP for Waveney.

The coronavirus generation of students – from primary school to adult learners – have faced a previously unimaginable transformation in the way they learn. The resilience, creativity and imagination of the education sector during this time to support them has been inspiring.

Yet, there is work to do to ensure that every student, now and in the future, has the skills they need to thrive, and lost learning in post-16 education must be top of our priorities.

Skills and post-16 education are in the political spotlight and are a central tenet of our Government’s levelling up agenda. They have rightly recognised that it is important that everyone has a range of opportunities open to them, removing the illusion that a degree is the only path to a good career and ensuring there are opportunities to retrain throughout a lifetime as jobs change and are displaced.

The newly introduced Skills and Post-16 Education Bill presents a chance to transform opportunities for all. What we must not forget is the need for urgent and extensive action and investment on lost learning right now. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report warned the government that failure to act on lost learning will translate into reduced productivity, lower incomes, lower tax revenues, higher inequality, and potentially expensive social ills.

When we take a focused look at what this means for students in further education, a worrying picture emerges.

Recent research by the Association of Colleges found that three quarters (77 per cent) of 16 to 18-year-olds are performing below normal expectations, between one and four months behind, with a similar number of adult students (69 per cent) also below where they would be expected to be. It will come as little surprise that students on practical courses such as construction, engineering, motor vehicle and hair and beauty have been hit hardest, because it is most difficult to replace practical teaching through online delivery.

The cross-party All Party Parliamentary Group on Further Education and Lifelong Learning – which I have the privilege to chair – recently heard about the challenges that a number of further education colleges are facing in delivering the much-needed catch-up support that students need.

It is clear that colleges’ finances have been hit hard as a consequence of the significant disruption caused by the pandemic, and compounded by recent decisions to claw back adult skills funding from colleges if they miss their targets this academic year by more than ten per cent. That’s why I and fellow members of the APPG have written this letter to Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, urging him to take the following important actions in order to address this:

First, we must give students – especially young people – leaving college a fully funded extra year of study if they need it for them to take their next steps in life. This could be through a simple, flexible fund, which allows colleges to design programmes lasting between six months to one year to meet needs and outcomes. A bursary will be needed for some to participate and truly benefit. Without this, students who have been most affected by the pandemic and existing disadvantage, such as digital poverty or caring responsibilities, will not get the vital skills they need to progress into further education or the labour market.

Second, recent decisions on adult learning funding must be reviewed. At a time when many adults face unemployment and fundamental changes to their jobs, lifelong learning cannot be left behind. There is an urgent need to reverse the ESFA’s decision to claw back Adult Education Budget funding from institutions that have not met 90 per cent of delivery targets for the 2020/2021 academic year.

This was announced eight months into the academic year to which it applies, giving colleges little time to reduce costs. Research by the Association of Colleges suggests that this decision will be in effect nearly a £60m cut to adult funding. A business case approach should be taken, allowing colleges to set out their circumstances and for concessions to be made on a case-by-case basis. Colleges need financial security and stability, now more than ever.

Finally, colleges must be provided with support for their most disadvantaged learners who have undoubtedly been hit hardest during the pandemic. The disadvantage that limits the potential of these student does not change when they reach the age of 16. Colleges should be given access to a 16-19 student premium, very similar to the pupil premium that supports students in secondary schools.

If we don’t take immediate action on lost learning we risk neglecting the opportunity to empower people to train or upskill for good jobs, and falling short on unlocking the economic growth our nation so needs. I believe that the measures I suggest, with cross-party support, reflect the Government’s commitment to levelling up.