Government’s skills agenda is a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’
Fewer, bigger changes and a more consistent, long-term approach to the skills policymaking are a step in the right direction – but positive steps to align technical and academic education could be jeopardised by failure to get businesses on side, warns research published by the City & Guilds Group.
Two years after its previous report, Sense & Instability: three decades of skills and employment policy, a follow-up review has revealed that despite positive steps to simplify and improve the system, many of the underlying barriers to effective skills and employment policymaking remain. As a result, there is concern that recent measures, including the apprenticeship levy, the Post-16 Skills Plan and the Area Based Reviews of colleges, will fail to deliver the skills needed by the economy or reduce the UK’s productivity shortfall.
With the Technical & Further Education Bill proceeding through Parliament – despite the lack of any formal Green Paper consultation process as there was regarding grammar schools– the City & Guilds Group is urging the Government to take a step back and learn from the mistakes of the past, such as the short-lived 14-19 Diplomas. The updated Sense & Instability report notes that employer unwillingness to engage with Government initiatives has been a key factor in past failures; for current reforms to be successful, business leaders need to be convinced that what is proposed will provide added value.
The report concludes that while efforts to improve the perception of vocational education and increase employer engagement in training have been positive, sustained progress is in jeopardy because:
• Policymakers continue to fail to take advantage of organisational memory.
• There is a negative trend toward reforms that may limit learning opportunities for young people and unemployed adults
• Despite the positive moves with the apprenticeship scheme the Government has not yet succeeded in generating sufficient support and ownership from employers, with sustained opposition from business groups and the FE sector.
The report further notes that Theresa May’s recent ministerial reshuffle and the modified Whitehall structure – which switched skills and FE to the Department for Education - represents the 11th time that this policy area has changed departments or been shared between departments since the 1980s. There have now been 65 Secretaries of State responsible for skills and employment policy in that period (compared with 19 for schools policy and 19 for higher education). This has raised fears that the current system is too disjointed to ensure a consolidated and coherent approach to policy.
As a result, the City & Guilds Group is calling on the Government to:
• Develop a consolidated, consultative approach to FE and skills policy, including the establishment of an independent body responsible for evaluating the Government’s policies, along the lines of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.
• Ensure continuous dialogue and consultation with sector experts and employers is integral to the design and implementation of the Post-16 Skills Plan.
• Ensure learning opportunities for youth and disadvantaged groups by making more apprenticeships available for the under-24s and unemployed adults.
• Focus on increasing the quality of apprenticeships first, and focus on targets later, and ensure more are available at higher levels, and in sectors with the largest skills gaps.
• Encourage greater cross-sectoral collaboration to enable employers and providers to adopt best practice from the most successful apprenticeships, such as those in the automotive sector, construction and engineering.
• Provide greater transparency around the practicalities of the reformed apprenticeship system, and particularly the levy, and commit to deadlines to provide further information.
• Minimise the burden of bureaucracy on employers as far as possible.
• Consider broadening the levy to include funding for other forms of training.
Speaking about the research, Chris Jones, Chief Executive of the City & Guilds Group, said: ‘The Government has taken some really positive steps to enhance the skills system, and raise the profile of apprenticeships and technical education. Support for apprenticeships is ever-increasing, and there has been a real drive to simplify the system and boost its reputation. But when it comes to implementation, it’s a case of two steps forward and one step back. Issues such as lack of organisational memory and consultation persist, which put any progress we’ve made over the past few years at risk.
‘If the Government truly wants a skills system that boosts our country’s competitiveness and productivity, it has to take its time rather than rushing straight for the finish line. That means working with employers and skills experts to shape implementation so that our skills system meets the needs of our economy now, and in the short and long-term future.’
Adding to this, Dr Ann Limb, CBE DL, Trustee of the City & Guilds Group, Chair at SEMLEP and the Scouts Association said: ‘We now have, for the first time since 1997, a Conservative majority Government. In terms of public policy, I see links back to their past ideology, such as the 1989 Education Reform Act and the 1992 Reform Act. Many of the developments covered in this report – the Area Based Reviews, reforms to funding methodology, the apprenticeship levy and so on – pick up trends from 20 years ago.
‘The Government champions apprenticeships and employer ownership, whereas previous changes have been voluntary. Now, there is legislation that requires employers to train people – and if the Government can get the quality, funding and mechanisms right, by 2020 we will start to see change for the better. Because for employers to stay competitive, whether they are small, medium or large, they need to have the best possible talent.’
Kate Shoesmith, Head of Policy & Public Affairs, Recruitment & Employment Confederation said: ‘A major barrier to economic growth is the lack of skilled staff in key sectors. Our data shows that it is getting harder for recruiters to find people for the jobs available and employers predict particular shortages in sourcing engineering, technical and healthcare professionals in the short to medium term. As this report identifies, we need to work with government, not against them, to build the talent pipeline and support more young people into work, and we all need to learn from past experiences. There are three things we think the Government should be prioritising here: an effective careers guidance network, embedding better employability skills within education, and high-quality, employer-led apprenticeships.’
Meanwhile, Anthony Impey, Founder & CEO, Optimity, a London-based SME said:
‘I’m a huge advocate of apprenticeships as a result of the really positive impact that they’ve had on my business. But without doubt, the system needs an overhaul. We’ve struggled with the quality and relevance of what it being taught. And I’ve had doubts about the value for money the Government gets based on the level of their investment. As this City & Guilds Group report shows, what the Government has planned definitely has the right ambition and scale to fix these issues. There’s lots of positive indicators that the right things are happening. But as with any great plan, its success will all be down to the execution of the strategy and the attention to detail. There is still a great deal of ground to cover and not much time to do it in.
'In Optimity, talent is our single biggest obstacle to growth and I’m yet to meet a business that doesn’t say the same. More than ever before, businesses need a skills system that delivers results.'