Ofsted’s report on the Skills Conditionality initiative concludes that many local programmes did little to improve employment. Providers often focused on achievement of qualifications, and offered courses that did not extend to training that lead to job specific skills. Many were not offering jobseekers challenging enough courses that were likely to increase their chances of sustained employment. This sounds like bad news for a scheme that was designed to help long term unemployed adults find work.
I want to argue that this is a serious report, and should not be dismissed. It identifies serious failings in government as well as areas where providers evidently need to raise their game. While it is far from being a rigorous evaluation, it brings together a compelling body of evidence from providers and participants. And finally, it raises the question of what Workfare has to do with adult learning. First, though, a bit of background.
The Department of Work and Pensions introduced Skills Conditionality in August 2011. Under the scheme, Job Centres can require claimants to be referred to a training provider on a mandatory basis; if they do not attend, they are likely to lose their benefits. At the same time, a small amount of adult skills funding was redirected to encourage providers to develop courses that would engage this group and help them into employment.
Ofsted based its findings on visits to 45 providers who included colleges, private training firms and adult community learning services. Originally, it had contacted 58 providers, but concluded that in thirteen cases there was insufficient activity to justify a visit. The inspectors also interviewed a sample of ex-participants and carried out focus groups with current participants.
The report is reasonably clear about some of the problems that providers faced, noting that recruitment was often challenging so that courses were not viable, or had to run with very low numbers. It recognises that the participants are often in circumstances that are going to reduce their ability to find work. It paints what seemed to me a plausible picture of current provision, drawing attention to some inspiring examples of good practice, and also identifying areas where more could be done. It makes a series of recommendations, both to providers and to government, all of which look eminently sensible to me. Ironically, many of them address issues that were raised by NIACE with DWP before the programme started.
Media attention focused, unsurprisingly, on the report’s criticisms. The BBC website, of all people, misleadingly carried a headline suggesting that the failings were all the fault of further education colleges. FE Week also ran with a headline claiming that ‘Ofsted slams FE for failing to address the unemployment problem’. So two early media reports clearly presented colleges as fall guys for failings in the system.
Some of these failings clearly lie with the providers – which include colleges along with other agencies. In fairness, it isn’t clear to me that providers face strong and consistent incentives to pour high quality staff time into this area. From the providers’ perspective, the learners are likely to be highly demanding and in some cases will present behavioural challenges; the programme is high effort and recruitment is likely to be poor; and some might wonder whether Skills Conditionality in its current form is simply another short-term initiative, with no long term implications.
But there are also structural failings in the programme. Ofsted’s first recommendation is that BIS should ‘clarify the aims and objectives of the funded programmes’. Some might find it startling that the programmes were started without clarifying their purpose in the first place, but this is then followed by seven further recommendations to BIS on operational and administrative weaknesses.
What Ofsted did not comment on was whether there was a basic design flaw in the programme. There is a substantial body of research, internationally and in the UK, into the impact of active labour market measures. Broadly speaking, these show that skills training in isolation has a fairly limited impact on unemployment. The most effective programmes are those that provide improved skills as part of a package that, critically, includes access to employment. I thought the UK Commission on Employment and Skills had absorbed this message when it reported in 2010 on the integration of skills and employment.
Nor did Ofsted mention the rather larger issue of whether adults can be compelled to learn. Taking the long view, we have been here before. Between 1929 and 1931, for example, the Labour Government introduced mandatory attendance at training centres – some of them residential work camps, others local day centres – as a condition of benefit for long term unemployed young men. It was such a failure that it was abandoned as soon as Labour left power, and was recalled with horror by civil servants and trainers for the rest of the decade.
At the very least, mandated training presents a considerable challenge to the tutors. Can you imagine the suspicion and mistrust the first time you walk in the classroom? We all know that adult learning works best when the learner is motivated, and fails miserably when they are not. The first hours and days of any course involving mandated participants will require teaching skills of the highest order if there is to be any prospect of real involvement. Whether ‘workfare’ and adult learning can be reconciled at a moral level is another matter.
Ofsted’s report is available at: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/skills-for-employment