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Our proposals for ‘Skills Wallets’, to give everyone £10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives, was a cornerstone of the Liberal Democrat election manifesto in 2019.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hang heavy over our way of life, there are two competing priorities: fire-fighting each new crisis week after week, whilst also laying the building blocks for a “new normal”, and a new economy.
But with wave after wave of job losses, businesses folding, and working life changed with the shift to more home-based online working, perhaps forever, the pace of change in the jobs market is unprecedented. For many people – not least those in the middle of, or nearing the ends of their careers – the future of work looks incredibly uncertain, with fewer jobs available and increasing demand for unfamiliar skills.
In this context, the Government’s ambition to shake up the world of adult education, and support people seeking training to build new skills, is something to welcome – if it delivers.
Almost every education initiative this year has been botched in one way or another. The schools re-opening was bungled, around half of the promised laptops for school children didn’t arrive, A-level results were a fiasco and the decision to allow a million university students to travel across the country without a functioning test and trace system, has created problems the sector was warning it would.
In this context, it’s not unreasonable for MPs to want to see some actual details of what the government is now proposing: how it will be rolled out? Who exactly will be eligible? Will the plans go far enough to make a meaningful difference?
The Government must develop a strategy that identifies and plugs emerging skills gaps
It’s also worth pointing out that this is not a new idea. The Liberal Democrats have long called for greater equality between academic and technical education, and funding for adult education and retraining.
Our proposals for ‘Skills Wallets’ would give everyone £10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives. This would be made up of an initial £4,000 Government investment available from when people turn 25, a further £3,000 investment when they turn 40 and, finally, another £3,000 available from the age of 55.
Individuals, employers and local governments would be able to make additional payments into these wallets, and people would be free to choose how and when to spend this money, on a range of approved education and training courses.
The package would sit alongside free career guidance, to help people decide how best, and when, to invest in training.
This was a cornerstone of our election manifesto in 2019 – inspired by the work of an independent Commission on Lifelong Learning, made up of experts in the education sector, and convened by former Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable.
The Commission produced a report on how individual accounts for education and training throughout life could be rolled out. Now, Liberal Democrats are urging the Prime Minister to consider these proposals as he starts to put meat on the bones of his own plans for the adult education sector. After all, there is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel.
The Liberal Democrats are calling to expand the apprenticeship levy into a wider ‘Skills and Training Levy’ to help prepare the UK’s workforce for the economic challenges ahead
Beyond offering people fully funded routes into training, we also need a radical overhaul of technical training as a whole.
That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling to expand the apprenticeship levy into a wider ‘Skills and Training Levy’ to help prepare the UK’s workforce for the economic challenges ahead. Under our plans, a quarter of the funds raised by this levy would be channelled into a ‘Social Mobility Fund’, to be targeted at areas with the greatest skill shortages.
Equally, we want to see National Colleges become national centres of expertise for key sectors, like renewable energy, to deliver the high-level vocational skills businesses need. This will help ensure we have the skills and knowledge for a Green Recovery from the current catastrophe.
Finally, the Government must develop a strategy that identifies and plugs emerging skills gaps, like the lack of advanced technicians. We want to see a huge expansion in higher vocational training, like foundation degrees, Higher National Diplomas, Higher National Certificates and Higher Apprenticeships.
It’s absolutely clear that training could offer a lifeline to new opportunities for millions of people. This is essential if we are to enjoy a future-proof recovery from the current crisis.
But it is also a daunting prospect for many. As people grapple with a new and intense climate of uncertainty, they deserve to know that the Government has a plan to get the country to a new normal. The Government could do worse than picking up ours.
Daisy Cooper is the Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson foir Education.