Will England take inspiration from Germany’s chambers of commerce?

The government’s forthcoming FE white paper could hand the British Chambers of Commerce key influencing powers over funding and priorities, FE Week understands.

Sources close to policy development say a gap has been created with the demise of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2017, and that local enterprise partnerships have failed to impress.

Utilising the national and 53 accredited local chambers would be similar to the much lauded system in Germany.

The chambers’ strong business links are understood to be particularly desired by government as ministers look to align courses on offer closer to those “valued by employers”, as prime minister Boris Johnson said during a major speech on the future of further education on Tuesday.

Greater use of chambers of commerce is an idea favoured by Baroness Alison Wolf, who now advises Johnson on skills three days a week.

In a 2015 report, Fixing a Broken Training System, she wrote that “powerful chambers of commerce to which all local businesses must belong are one way to secure [business] participation (as in Germany)” in the skills system.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson met this year with the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which represents the UK’s 53 accredited local chambers, to discuss “further education and apprenticeships”, according to the latest government disclosures of Williamson’s meetings.

This was after the minister promised last year’s Conservative Party conference to “overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029”.

Williamson laid out the groundwork for handing chambers greater powers at a major speech on FE reform in July 2020 where he quoted the BCC’s director general Adam Marshall, saying: “Unless we improve the transition from the world of education to the world of work in the United Kingdom, we will not fix our long-standing issues around productivity.”

The BCC told FE Week their members are “open” to exploring how “to use their knowledge, experience and convening power to contribute to the future development of the skills system”. It also confirmed that it is speaking regularly with the DfE on the skills agenda because skills are “of fundamental importance to businesses and local economies in the wake of the pandemic”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it has had a “number of conversations” with a “wide variety of groups about the future skills system,” ahead of the white paper.

The spokesperson added that involving employers and local business groups, such as the chambers, will be “crucial” for that work, so that “we can make sure we are delivering the skills local communities and our economy need to thrive”. They said more details would come out “in due course”.

Chambers of commerce, the BCC said, would want to work “collaboratively” with FE colleges and providers, employers and communities if they are given a greater role in provision, but already have “long had a role in the skills systems, shaping local strategies”. This has included, for example, organising local skills forums, contributing to the local Skills Advisory Panels, submitting evidence to parliamentary select committees, overseeing links between businesses and education providers, helping develop university technical colleges, and supporting young people with careers activities.

The BCC is also itself involved in the new Kickstart scheme, getting young people on to work placements that can then lead on to apprenticeships or other training, as a gateway provider, which allows employers who have fewer than 30 placements to take part.

The chambers are groups of local businesses, with varying levels of staff, which can offer their members opportunities at networking as well as advice on legal matters, health and safety, and tax.

Because they charge membership fees, chambers do not receive much in the way of public funding, although they have competed for government tenders, the BCC said.

Chambers may move front of stage for the white paper because it is understood the government has been underwhelmed by the influence of local enterprise partnerships when it comes to FE.

More closely integrating chambers with the FE and skills system in their area would bring England closer to Germany’s “world-class” system, which relies on local chambers to approve the trainer, known as a meister (German for master), that every company needs to have apprentices. 

Membership of organisations like the chambers are compulsory for firms in Germany and they have to pay fees.

Tom Bewick

Federation of Awarding Bodies chief executive Tom Bewick who has worked and written extensively on international
apprenticeship systems, said adopting a
similar approach here would come down to
the capacity of England’s chambers.

Germany’s are built upon decades of
prestige, Bewick says, and as businesses
have to pay into the chambers, they are much more focused on its outcomes: “You always feel a little more anxious when it’s your money going out the door.”

English chambers, meanwhile, suffer from vast gaps in capability, Bewick said: “When you talk about the London chamber of commerce, it’s quite a substantial organisation, got quite a lot of staff, quite a bit of money coming through the door.

“But in other parts of the country, the chambers are no more than one man and a dog, with retired Colonel Blimp who used to run a corner shop.

“We just haven’t got the level of capacity in our chamber movement. If it’s just a series of talking shops, why would active employers, other than out of the goodness of the heart, get involved?”

Whereas German chambers see themselves as the “paymasters for the apprenticeships system”, in England, people look to government as the paymasters, even though the apprenticeship system is funded by employers.

Professor Ewart Keep from the Centre on Skills, Knowledge & Organisational Performance at Oxford University said the compulsory membership element of German chambers renders them “fundamentally different”, as they are “embedded” in the local business structure, and the structure of apprenticeships.

“When people talk about copying the German system, I always laugh a bit because it’s not really that easy. It’s deeply embedded in the structure of their country and the cultural expectations of parents, young people, employers and so on.”

But neither Bewick nor Keep believe chambers taking a beefed-up role in FE and skills is impossible.

Bewick thinks if the government does give chambers more power it will be because policymakers have realised “the system has gone too far in the direction of being a technocratic-led system, as opposed to an employer-responsive one”.

“Employers are engaged quite a lot, but I don’t think it’s the same as having employer-owned bodies independent of government and bureaucracy that then have some say over how provision is organised and paid for.

“So, I suspect that will be the crux of what they’re trying to work through with the chambers.”

While it is “not beyond the wit of man” to award those powers to chambers, it would turn them “into quasi-local authorities”, and although he is not involved in the chamber movement, “I don’t know to what extent there is an appetite to take on that statutory role,” Bewick added.

Keep said that in most developed countries there is some kind of local employer-led body that deals with training, which England does not have and “sooner or later we are going to have to tackle that”, so the chambers “might be a runner” for fulfilling that role.

Any announcement on the role of the chambers is highly likely to be dependent on a successful DfE bid to the Treasury in the forthcoming spending review.

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