The Lifetime Skills Guarantee – choosing or gambling?

Richard Barrett, Education and Employers Research Associate and freelance education consultant

This week’s announcement by the Prime Minister of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee promises an increase in access to vocational learning1.  This guarantee should be welcomed, especially in the context of new Prince’s Trust research showing that forty-one per cent of young people believe that, as a result of the pandemic, their future goals now seem “impossible to achieve.”2  The numbers believing this rose to half for those who had used free school meals.  Unless the promised opportunities on offer align with young people’s aspirations the £1.5 billion promised capital spending, £8 million for digital skills boot camps and similar initiatives will not have optimum impact.  The risks are that young people choose routes from a narrow perspective, meaning they miss pathways because they don’t know about them, or follow a path that become less attractive as they learn more on their learning journey.  These unsuccessful ‘gambles’ can lead to underachievement, disillusion or dropout.

Announcing the Lifetime Skills Guarantee on the 29th September at Exeter College as a way of supplying much needed skills the Prime Minister stated that ‘The problem is one of supply – and somehow our post-18 educational system is not working in such a way as to endow people with those skills.’

The risk to skills improvement is that learners’ narrow aspirations and lack of information can lead them to gamble their educational future, rather than make well informed choices.  The International Labour Organization (ILO) published a large-scale global research paper about young people’s aspirations on entering the labour market just before the Government’s announcement and the Prince’s Trust report.  the ILO report argues that if policies and programmes help recipients visualize potential pathways to achieving their goals, policy makers and practitioners can utilize the motivating power of aspirations to assist choice making and successful outcomes3.  It identifies three steps in this process: First, individuals need to set a goal for the future (an aspired position). Second, they need to have the necessary agency to carry out the steps required to attain that goal. Third, they need to visualize pathways to achieving that goal, such as access to the cognitive or material tools necessary for their journey.

In this context the Lifetime Skills Guarantee announcement outlines the promised destination of new courses with qualifications for young people, and adults, but does not fully address how the route can be navigated. Talking only about post-18 aspects of the system ignores the overwhelming evidence that individuals’ decisions and aspirations about employment are formed much earlier and persist into adulthood.  While the new courses and funding arrangements promise improved agency, we have heard nothing yet about broadening and raising aspirations.  There is a large careers advice and guidance shaped hole in the announcement that is yet to be addressed.  This goes beyond the need to significantly enhance careers advice and guidance services in schools and colleges as an integral part of the system which the Prime Minister wants to improve.

The ILO research indicates that exposure to people outside a young person’s immediate social network has a positive impact on aspiration formation.  It points out that role models have to be people with whom individuals ‘can identify socially and whose stories produce a vicarious experience that generates emotions strong enough to spur a willingness in us to change our status quo.’  At least one element of the findings encourages policy-makers and educators to start raising students’ aspirations as early as primary school and the findings are clear that carrying this on into adolescence and beyond is important.  Professionalised careers advice and guidance is critical – it is enhanced by work experience and strengthened by early interventions like Primary Futures and Inspiring the Future which provide external variety and diverse role model stimulation to aspiration.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee, as it currently stands, is a supply side solution lacking sufficient focus on shaping the demand-side of the equation.  If the Lifetime Skills Guarantee is to help improve employment prospects and social mobility for disadvantaged groups, policy makers and practitioners need to go beyond publicising new courses and qualifications, no matter how flexible.  They need to unleash the motivating power of aspiration for the target groups and enable professionals and the third sector to help them shape their own aspirations and choose their routes to success.