Boris Johnson has vowed “radical” changes to the education system in England to help boost the post-Covid economy.
The prime minister said the pandemic had “massively accelerated” changes to the world of work, and made training gaps “painfully apparent”.
He said funding changes could help end the “bogus distinction” between academic and practical learning.
In a speech, Mr Johnson announced that adults in England without an A-level or equivalent qualification will be offered a fully funded college course.
The PM said the government cannot “save every job” amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but wants to help people find new work.
He added the changes would allow the country to “not just come through this crisis, but come back stronger”.
The announcement comes amid fears that unemployment is set to grow, as the economy slumps in the wake of the pandemic.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has said the unemployment rate could peak at between 9.7% to 13.2% in the next few years. The most recent rate – for May to July – is 4.1%.
The offer of courses to adults without an A-level will be paid for from England’s National Skills Fund, which the Conservatives pledged to boost by £2.5bn during last year’s general election.
Skills Minister Gillian Keegan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ministers are aiming to make courses available to people “as soon as possible” after extra funding comes in next April.
This plan to give further education students a fairer share of funding goes all the way back to a report from Theresa May’s time in office.
That was about tackling deep-rooted weaknesses in vocational education and reversing a lack of financial support.
But now – when this appears as a White Paper – expect it to be re-framed as a battle to retrain millions of adults whose jobs have been threatened by the pandemic.
Further education colleges will be put on the frontline of providing the type of modern skills that will be durable enough to withstand the changes that Covid-19 is making to the jobs market.
This could mean funding for digital skills, for instance, for those whose livelihoods are disappearing in retail.
With a winter of uncertainty about what happens next for many jobs – access to retraining for adults of all ages will be important as never before.
The government also says it wants to make higher education loans more flexible, with the aim of letting people “space out” their learning throughout their lives rather than in three- or four-year blocks, enabling more part-time study.
It said the changes would be backed by investment in college buildings and facilities, including more than £1.5bn in capital funding.
In other plans, small businesses will be offered financial incentives to take on apprentices and £8m will be spent on skills “boot camps” in West Yorkshire, south-west England, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to cover sectors like construction and engineering.
This follows pilots in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands that focused on digital skills.
And the government’s online Skills Toolkit, a collection of training resources launched in the spring to help people acquire jobs skills ahead of businesses reopening, will be expanded to include 62 additional courses.
Responding to the government’s measures, Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “A week ago Labour called for a National Retraining Strategy fit for the crisis Britain faces, but what the government proposes is simply a mix of reheated old policies and funding that won’t be available until April.
“By then many workers could have been out of work for nearly a year, and the Tories still think that they will need to take out loans to get the training they will need to get back in work.”
She added the plans would not give workers “the skills and support they need in the months ahead”.
CBI director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said the “significant” unemployment coronavirus is leaving in its wake “only accelerates the need for people to develop new skills and adapt to new ways of working”.
“The lifetime skills guarantee and flexible loans to support bitesize learning are a strong start but to really shift gears, this must be backed up by meaningful progress on evolving the apprenticeship levy into a flexible skills levy,” she added.
The apprenticeship levy – introduced in 2017 – takes 0.5% of the salary bill from major employers that have an annual pay bill over £3m, with the intention of using the money to improve skills and provide training.
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News – PM promises ‘radical’ shake-up of adult education