The English system is suffering from innovation fatigue. We need to stop chopping and changing it, writes Tom Bewick

Coming back into the UK’s skills system after a seven-year absence working internationally feels like returning to another planet. In England, some of the major reforms have taken place; the sector has weathered a new policy announcement or different skills initiative – on average – every 16 weeks since 2010.

We’ve welcomed and said our farewells to no fewer than 12 different skills ministers since 1997. Indeed, if you look at the average tenure of an English skills minister it is just 17 months, less even than the average tenure of a premier league football manager – who last an average of 18 months.

Meanwhile, you have to admire the people and organisations that work in the sector for their sheer resilience. Despite the merry-go-round of changing institutional structures and competing policy wheezes, people at the sharp end have still managed to carry on with the day job of transforming working lives.

The average tenure of an English skills minister it is just 17 months, less than the average tenure of a premier league football manager

Without a strong awarding sector, for example, planes would drop out of the sky, construction sites would be unsafe and our A&E units would be even more overstretched.

In the last year, according to Ofqual’s market assessment report, the largest growth in certifications came in the form of a level one in ‘health and safety in a construction environment’ and a level two in ‘emergency first aid at work’.

These types of qualifications may not feature highly in the government’s ambitions around improving technical education, but it is vital that they are not lost sight of in the current debate.

Very few would disagree that in some ways this is one of the most challenging and exciting times to be working in the vocational skills arena.

Despite a few jeremiads, there is much to celebrate: a record number of young people are learning in good or outstanding further education colleges and training providers, and youth unemployment has declined by 40 per cent in recent years against the backdrop of the highest adult employment rate since 1975.

The government is right to focus relentlessly on the fact that we are ranked in the lower quartile of OECD countries for our technical level skills. All this has been exacerbated by a collapse in workplace productivity over the past decade as wage incomes have stagnated and public investment has been reigned in.

The big challenge seven years after the Wolf Review was published is to learn from those other world-class systems that we rightly wish to emulate. We need to understand, in particular, what has made our main competitors so institutionally successful. The overriding observation is one of stability.

England has only recently established a dedicated Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. It needs to be given support and proper resources, including a sensible timeframe on which to successfully implement the post-16 skills plan reforms.

Take Switzerland, often referred to as the world’s best for technical and vocational training: it has had the same institution looking after apprenticeships and technical education since 1972. The SFI-VET responds to change, not by the Maoist tendency of tearing up the old to reinvent the new, but by incrementally and progressively building on success while weeding out failure. The Swiss system last embarked on reform in 2007.

Germany established its equivalent of the IFA as far back as the 1970 Vocational Training Act. For over 45 years, despite an overhaul of its vocational training model in 2005, BIBB has remained a constant in the institutional landscape. In addition, the employer-led chambers of commerce help anchor a really strong sense of stability on which 331 apprenticeship standards have evolved.

After a period advising overseas governments on their own skills strategies, it feels to me like returning to a domestic system that is showing all the signs of innovation fatigue. A top-down command-and-control approach is used when reforms would benefit from much greater collaboration and openness. The essential foundations for success are now in place. The point is to stick with them.

Tom Bewick is Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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