Always check the engine before you blame the passengers 

The core message contained in a new IfATE report is as predictable as it is tiresome, says Tom Bewick

The core message contained in a new IfATE report is as predictable as it is tiresome, says Tom Bewick

16 Jun 2023, 11:00

Back in 2001, I was waiting for Estelle Morris, the then education and skills secretary. Despite the conference venue, Church House, being literally just across the road from her department’s Whitehall HQ, she was running late. 

Her skills minister, John Healey, was about to go on stage but was anxious to catch a word with his political boss. We were launching the new sector skills councils (SSCs) initiative to an invited audience of industry leaders. 

“What’s our core message?”, he asked me. 

As a post-16 advisor at the time, I told him: “Well minister, we need to put employers at the heart of the skills system. Sector skills councils will achieve this aim by handing ownership of the skills and productivity challenge over to them.” 

“Great”, he said, “make sure Estelle gets the same message when she arrives.” 

Ever since that point, we have seen a succession of government ministers and senior officials parrot the same line: “Employers at the heart of the skills system.”

The trouble is, the whole thing has turned out to be one massive illusion. 

Employers today are no more engaged in government skills policies than they were two decades ago. In fact, there is strong evidence by volume of firms engaged, not to mention employer investment in workers, that they are even less engaged. 

The Labour Force Survey shows a 28 per cent decline in company training since 2005 (11 per cent since 2010). 

Some people reading this will remember the employer ownership of skills pilots (EOP). It turned out that firms are great at taking “free money” from taxpayers to boost skills. But they are rather less forthcoming in stepping up and putting in their own cash, as reported by FE Week at the time. 

In fact, independent researchers commissioned to evaluate the pilots found huge deadweight in the £350 million programme. Only 40 per cent of the original planned starts were met.

It is hard not to be cynical when you rock up at another one of these taxpayer-funded “terrace events” in Parliament, as I did this week.

The core message of the event on Tuesday, marking the launch of a new report by IfATE on “a simpler skills system”, was as predictable as it was tiresome. 

Perhaps we should not blame hard-working officials who put together this guff. They are made to “drink the Kool-Aid”. 

I liken it to blaming the passengers on a bus that has broken down. You would always look at the mechanical faults in the engine compartment first. 

The truth is that civil servants have become prisoners of an ideology that is total nonsense.

Let’s start by examining the bold claim that the institute is the “voice of employers in the skills system”. For a public body established under the political direction of ministers, this is constitutionally impossible. 

IfATE can only ever be the voice of the government of the day. It is the duty of officials to serve ministers in what they want to achieve in terms of apprenticeships and technical education. 

The institute is chaired by a Conservative peer. It has a career civil servant at the helm, as opposed to a celebrated captain of industry. 

IfATE is neither a representative structure nor is it an independent voice in the skills system. It exists to do the bidding of the governing party. And, in a democracy, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

If the government was really serious about employers being placed in the driving seat – or taking more responsibility for skills development, public and private – we would see some kind of renaissance of the employer-led sectoral approach to training. 

I find it amusing, given my Labour background, that I successfully argued back in 2001 that the last people you would put in charge of a skills system are a bunch of civil servants, however well-meaning. 

When Estelle Morris finally arrived at Church House, I dutifully relayed the “employers at the heart of the skills system” message. In retrospect, I wish I had just told her Ronald Reagan’s famous line about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

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