Different takes on putting ‘employers at the heart’ of FE reform

Putting employers at the heart of FE and skills reform gives it an air of authority under the current political climate. Mick Fletcher looks at the differing viewpoints that could be taken on this theme.

All the headlines about the long-awaited Skills Funding Statement were understandably about the 19 per cent cut to adult FE funding and the climbdown on loans for older apprentices.

Tucked quietly away, however, was the announcement that a vocational qualifications reform plan would be published early this year.

Those who have been around for some time will have received the news with a heavy heart — governments have been announcing reforms to vocational qualifications since well before the current skills minister was born, and the sector’s resulting turbulence compared with the stability of the academic route is a major cause of their poor public standing.

Two things can be said with near certainty about the forthcoming plan.

It would be more accurate and productive to stop talking of employer ownership and talk instead of social partnership

One is that it will promise to put employers in the lead, or in the driving seat, or at the heart of the reforms — they always do.

The second is that like all its predecessors it will fail. It is worth spending a few moments reflecting as to why.

The core of the problem is that employers and government mean different things by employer ownership.

For government, it means taking away power from providers and giving it to employers.

For employers, it means taking away power from government with a capital G.

Employers don’t make fine distinctions between colleges, civil servants and quangos like Ofqual — they are all government and they all need to be rolled back.

Whitehall, on the other hand, is happy to take power away from almost anyone — colleges, local authorities, universities or the European Union. It just doesn’t want to give up any of its own.

Take for example the employer ownership pilots.

Neither employers nor government (and still less the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which dreamt them up) sees any benefit in announcing their failure.

They are doomed to succeed despite the flimsiest of track records to date.

Yet talk to employer representatives off the record and they will complain mightily that all their efforts and initiatives have been frustrated — they have been drowned in red tape.

Civil servants on the other hand will describe in similar terms how they have laboured ceaselessly to inject common sense and logic into incoherent and sloppy proposals.

This is not a marriage made in heaven but at best a marriage of convenience.

The same tension can be seen at work in the proposals for apprenticeship reform.

Employers are nominally in the driving seat ‘ensuring’ that the new standards that will replace frameworks are based on and reflect their needs — but at the same time government insists on a minimum duration, requires that assessment should come at the end, specifies that apprenticeships should be graded and legislates that apprentices must take a level two test in English and maths even if employers say it is not needed in their sector.

None of these requirements are necessarily wrong, indeed many would strongly support them.

What is wrong is that current skills policy is founded fundamentally on a deceit.

Government not only pretends that employers are in charge when they are clearly not, but it tries to justify the pretence by marginalising other legitimate voices — providers, assessment organisations and trades unions to name but three.

It would be more accurate and productive to stop talking of employer ownership and talk instead of social partnership; to recognise the inherent tensions in skills policy and seek to reconcile them through negotiation rather than sleight of hand.

This after all is what happens in those countries that we profess to admire, Germany, for example, and Switzerland.

The alternative is that two or three years down the road yet another government will announce yet another reform of vocational qualifications with, yet again, employers at its heart.


Mick Fletcher is an FE Consultant


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