A noxious trade-off between understaffing and underskilling
The NHS is on the brink of a workforce crisis, with 110,000 vacancies against a total of 1.27 million full-time equivalent staff. The Government’s plans to combat this include more medical training places and a new doctor apprenticeship scheme. These are welcome proposals, though it remains unclear how the new scheme will dovetail with existing medical degrees. More concerning is the plan to cut medical degrees to four years, and let trainee doctors “earn while they learn”. This risks sacrificing the quality of healthcare delivery as a shortcut to boosting numbers, throwing underqualified staff onto the frontline. The logic is the wrong way round: NHS staff should be able to “learn while they earn” after they are fully qualified, to refresh and upskill during the rest of their careers. The Government also needs to make it easier for people outside the NHS workforce with relevant skills to transfer into healthcare by “conversion”. Both require a system of “step-on, step-off” lifelong learning pathways in health and social care. These new plans are a long way away from making such pathways a reality.
Teach First, teach primary?
As UK parties consolidate their manifestos in the run-up to a 2024 General Election, the Labour Party is opening up a new battlefront on early-years education. The party has announced new plans to increase the number of degree-level nursery teachers to help children’s development of key skills before they start primary school. As of 2022, only 385 of roughly 3,100 nursery schools are state-funded, a number Labour has already pledged to increase if it comes to power. Most of these have degree-level leadership teams, but graduates are less well-represented among their wider staff. However, Labour has yet to clarify what form this graduate pipeline into early-years teaching will take, with little detail on the course and qualification requirements, teacher training providers, or funding arrangements that will help upskill the early-years teaching workforce. Part of Labour’s plans is a proposal to integrate early-years learning with primary schools, to create better continuity at the start of the formal education system. This would help alleviate pressure on further education to “pick up the pieces” later on in learners’ lives and careers. But Labour should also see it as a step towards fully integrating learning at all ages, as the “cradle” end of a full “cradle to grave” National Education Service.
Open terrain for tertiary education
Over a year since the Skills and Post-16 Education Act passed into law, the policy mood around lifelong education is moving from “wait and see” towards a clamour for new ambitions. There is a long way to go before the Government's ambitions to upskill the UK population are realised. 40% of learners exit the education system without reaching a Level 3 qualification (A-level, T-level, BTEC, or equivalent). 15% of learners fail to reach an adequate standard at Level 2 (GCSE). Against this backdrop, the Association of Colleges has released a new report, Opportunity England, outlining the challenges that face whoever wins the next General Election. The core message is one of harmonising post-16 education: parity in pay, more accessible funding, simplified regulation, and a single data and information framework, undergirded by a statutory right to lifelong learning. The LEI welcomes the AoC's intervention. It aligns closely with our vision of a fully integrated, learner-focused tertiary education system. Now, learners and education providers alike deserve certainty about how this integration should be achieved. For the right to lifelong learning to have bite, learners need flexible options to upskill that tie their education trajectory closely to their career progression. The onus is now on UK parties to spell out their plans for the future of tertiary education.