Dame Ruth Silver explains the origins of the latest Skills Commission report, which raises several ‘strategic alerts’ for the skills system and calls for more ‘systems thinking’ to ensure provision remains relevant and related to a rapidly changing world.

Skills Commission reports have always attempted to be ‘scripts for the future’ for sector leaders, policy makers and politicians to draw on, and our most recent contribution is no exception.

The ideas behind this inquiry had been a long time coming. While our other recent reports One System, Many Pathways, The Move to Improve (one and two), and Specialisation had focused on various reforms, institutions, and aspects of education and training, the commission recognised that wider societal changes were taking place that required fresh thinking and a wider lens.

Taking a step back and examining the system in its entirety from the perspective of ‘ changing work’ presented itself as a worthwhile, much needed enterprise, particularly at a time of public austerity and significant changes to the funding of skills provision, and its positioning in relation to the labour market.

The enthusiasm from the commission as we ‘entered the looking glass’, so to speak, and heard from leading labour market economists, journalists and academics, was hugely encouraging.

As we analysed the changing shape of the economy and new labour markets, examined occupation change, learned about emerging business structures, rates of training, the rise of flexible working patterns, and significant demographic and cultural changes, not only did we confirm the validity of our line of enquiry, we came to realise that the challenges facing the skills system were perhaps greater than we had imagined.

How does the system, for example, respond to training and progression opportunities in a flexible and polarised labour market, the reduction in structured entry routes into work for young people, the extension of working life, rapid technological innovation, and continuing disparities in outcome based on social class or gender?

Our repeated habit of constructing today’s solutions to fit yesterday’s problems is leaving a terrible inheritance for the next generation

These implications and the others highlighted in the report pose serious questions to all parts of the system and our assessment of the system’s components against these concerns prompted us to flag four ‘strategic alerts’ that require urgent attention.

Strategic alert one was uncertainty around the responsibility for training in an increasingly flexible labour market. Number two was declining social mobility owing to a reduction in the alignment of skills provision to work. Three was fragmentation in the system making it difficult for employers to engage. And four was alarming policy dissonance between different Central Government departments.

The alerts reflected points that were repeatedly raised by contributors to the inquiry but beyond these our discussions with providers, representative bodies, and employers raised a whole host of other issues which require more nuanced considerations. For example, we encountered tensions within the apprenticeship model between those who want a focus on delivering the high level skills required by industry and the professions, and others who wish the model to expand rapidly to restore our broken youth labour market.

Other recurring themes of the inquiry were around the possibilities ‘personal learning’ accounts could offer in an age that will require continual reskilling, the frustrations caused by seemingly arbitrary age restrictions on funding, uncertainty around structures of oversight, and the problems caused by funding systems not sufficiently flexible enough to respond to labour market intelligence.

These issues and the many others highlighted in the report require serious consideration from policy makers and new solutions. Our repeated habit of constructing today’s solutions to fit yesterday’s problems is — in so many instances from the state of the property market to the environment — leaving a terrible inheritance for the next generation.

With a skills system that we found in parts to be seriously out of tune with the rapid and unplanned changes in work, it is the Skills Commission’s hope that all players in the system will take heed of the issues raised in the report and join us in finding ways to create sustainable solutions that will serve individuals well in a flexible and polarised labour market as well as businesses in a high-tech and globally competitive economy.