Let’s have an education and skills commission to advise government

29 Nov 2021, 6:04

The skills system is crying out for a comprehensive long-term strategy led by experts, writes Sir John Armitt

In the past 30 years, there have been over 70 ministers responsible for skills policy – all believing their personal success is measured by what they can alter.

Most of them have been well intentioned, but these ministers have never been in post for long enough to deliver actual change. In addition, responsibility has moved between the Departments for Education and Business.

The result is decades of neglect for skills in the UK, which in turn has let down three generations of workers and also hampered our economic growth.

‘Cinderella of the skills system’

The situation could not be more urgent. Just over one in four (27 per cent) employers expect the number of hard-to-fill vacancies to increase in the next six months, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s latest labour market outlook.

Some of the hardest to fill vacancies are in construction, healthcare and public administration. So it’s clear that improvements in technical and vocational education is crucial to any longer term strategy to resolve these shortages.

But despite recent ministerial rhetoric and policy centred on improving technical and vocational training in the UK, it still suffers as the Cinderella of our education system.

It suffers from a system which, for too long, has placed too much emphasis on the university degree. The system is also handicapped by the belief that technical or vocational training is something that only needs to be addressed after GCSEs.

In short, our skills system is not yet fit for the challenges we face as a country.

‘Constant churn of government initiatives’

As mentioned, there is the problem of the constant churn of both government initiatives and skills ministers which has led skills and education policy to become short-term in outlook, disjointed and inconsistent.

The apprenticeship levy, introduced in 2017, is a case in point. After its introduction, the number of apprenticeship starts have fallen, and employers have had to cajole government into common sense changes to make the system more practical and effective.

There is still much more to be done if apprenticeships are to work for all employers large and small.

The latest major test for the system will be T Levels – a new technical qualification aimed at 16-19-year-olds and equivalent to three A-levels.

It’s still early days and will take ten years before the picture becomes clear, but if one thing is obvious now, it’s that T Levels deserve to be given a proper chance to succeed, through continued attention and investment from government.

‘Comprehensive long-term solutions needed’

Of course, skills provision is not all on the shoulders of colleges, schools or government. Sadly, not nearly enough employers see training as their responsibility. But training should not require a government handout – it should be a basic element of their cost base.

To see real improvements in our skills system, a collective sense of responsibility is required.

I’m by no means suggesting that government is unaware of these issues or does not understand the need for improvement – indeed, the recent calls to “level up” at least encourage technical training.

But as I step down after nine years as chair of City & Guilds, I know that awareness and understanding just aren’t enough.

Government also needs to put the structures in place that allow for well-thought-out, comprehensive long-term solutions.

Just imagine if we could create an independent education and skills commission that provides expert, impartial advice to government? One that takes a 30-year perspective on how we foster the skills we need, and recommends policies on how we meet them?

We would have a much better chance of creating long-lasting and impactful policy led by collective expertise.

And what’s stopping us? Especially now, as we look to unlock the UK economy post-pandemic, and grapple with these serious skills shortages post-Brexit.

What can be more important than getting our education and training system right not just for now, but for the long term?

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