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Opportunity England: How colleges can transform life chances, overcome inequalities and boost economic growth

Whoever wins the next general election faces many well-documented challenges, including the threat of recession, stagnating growth and productivity, and ever-widening skills gaps across the economy. Tackling these, and building an economy fit for the future will require bold action, and a cohesive education and skills training system, set up and supported to deliver for people, businesses and for communities.

Most of the issues we face are not unique to this country, but the opportunity is there for the next government to unleash the potential of colleges to make a step change and make skills a great British success story. Opportunity England sets out what the next Government needs to do to think big, to think bold, and to take on the future with optimism and hope.

Achieving this will not be easy. Which is why we urgently need to see a bold and confident vision, for tertiary education and a long-term strategy that is sustainable, deliverable, and supported by all parts of government.

We need a system in which:

  • Every young person and adult will be supported to attain and maintain the skills they will need throughout their lives
  • Every employer is supported to innovate, improve productivity and develop their workforce to have the skills needed in the transition to a green and flourishing economy
  • Every community boasts of post-16 learning opportunities which meet the needs of all their citizens through an ecosystem of learning organisations delivering a coherent, diverse and compelling set of opportunities for people to learn and train
  • Colleges are recognised, regulated and funded to play the unique roles that only they can play in providing a truly comprehensive set of learning, training and education opportunities to people of all ages and at all levels whilst supporting employers to innovate and grow.
City of Bristol College

Education and training will be crucial in addressing five of the biggest challenges and turning them into opportunities, including:


Growing numbers of older people will increase the demand for health and social care services and heighten the demand for more flexible forms of employment, education and training across the labour market.


Changing trade and migration arrangements with continental Europe will increase the need for our system to support people to get the skills needed in our labour markets in low, medium and high skilled sectors and jobs, and to keep pace with changes in those jobs.


Increasing urgency to reduce carbon emissions will change the skills in many sectors, but particularly in the construction, energy, manufacturing and transport industries.


Greater use of digital data, telecommunications and artificial intelligence is likely to alter the demand for skills, the need for re-training and maintaining currency of skills as well as changes in how education and training are delivered and assessed.


The ambition for a high-skill, high pay economy will increase the need for more people to be skilled at higher levels and in growth sectors of the economy. Meanwhile, the growing emphasis on redressing regional economic inequalities necessarily requires a focus on addressing unequal attainment in our education and training system, and supporting people to be able to retrain and upskill later on in life.

Education and training systems within the UK are organised separately in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and there is much to learn across all four nations. In England, these five big challenges need a strong response from government but our post-16 education and training system is not regulated, funded and organised to deliver as it can and must.

Policy recommendations

The incoming government should focus on five areas of urgent actions to unleash the potential of colleges to deliver:

1. A new statutory right to lifelong learning

2. An apprenticeship system that works

3. A curriculum for all

4. A workforce strategy

5. Investing in our future

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