The DfE has failed to work the industrial strategy into the skills white paper

22 Mar 2021, 6:00

It looks like the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy aren’t talking to each other, writes Graham Hasting-Evans

Do you remember the “industrial strategy”? Back in 2017 the government developed an overarching economic plan spanning up to 2027. From this has flowed a number of sector industry strategies. 

These industrial strategies, developed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, set out the impact that digitisation, artificial intelligence, changes in materials, new ways of working and green technologies would have on sectors.  

From these, significant changes were identified to develop the required skills in the UK’s workforce: both 16- to 19-year-olds doing traineeships, apprenticeships and T Levels, and also the 34 million in the workforce who need some form of re-skilling.  

But what currently is not at all clear is how these industrial strategies fit with the Skills for Jobs white paper proposals put forward by the Department for Education. It is very hard to find joined-up coherence between the two. 

‘Heavily academic Board’

Take the white paper’s proposed Skills and Productivity Board. The idea behind this board is to provide expert advice on skills mismatches and how to make sure the courses and qualifications on offer across the country provide the needs of the employers and help grow the economy. It is chaired by Stephen van Rooyen, chief executive at Sky in the UK and Ireland.  

Yet it is quite a heavily academic board. I am a fellow of the World Confederation of Productivity Science and in my experience, productivity improvements are achieved through a series of very practical day-to-day changes. It is hard to see how the very academic Skills and Productivity Board will relate to the practically focused industrial strategies developed by BEIS.

Of course, more detail may be yet to come – but the fact the industrial strategy is only mentioned once (in passing) in the white paper is already a cause for concern. Instead, the DfE has created a board without any practitioners on it, other than the chair, and that worries me. 

‘Skills improvement plans must be local’

We also need to ask how the industrial strategy is meant to connect at the local level to the Chambers of Commerce, which were set up as the respected voice of the business communities they represent more than 150 years ago, in some cases.  

The chambers have been tasked with making sure the white paper’s “local skills improvement plans” are implemented, which means they should help ensure colleges and providers match their courses to local employers’ needs.  

How can the chambers do this without knowing what industrial strategies the government has for different kinds of employers and sectors? 

Some chambers are very proactive on the local skills agendas, linking to other organisations such as the combined authorities, Local Enterprise Boards, Confederation of British Industry and Federation of Small Businesses. Others less so.

The DfE seems to have failed to realise that there is already a productivity plan out there

Even if the local skills improvement plans are properly linked up to the industrial strategies, I’m concerned the plans won’t have the flexibility to really respond to the local situation. 

We need to remember each area will start from a different place. In some areas, maths and English skills will be sufficient, but in other areas there might be major gaps in these basic employability skills.  

All areas will have different mixtures of large employers or small employers. Somewhere like Derby is focused on manufacturing, but if you go down to Devon it will be more concerned with tourism and hospitality.  

My worry is the local skills plans will be cast from a central template, and local people won’t have enough flexibility to really make them work and match up with local needs and sector-specific industrial strategies. The plans mustn’t be managed from the centre. 

Overall, the DfE seems to have failed to realise that there is already a productivity plan out there – it’s the industrial strategy. It’s been completely formulated, yet it appears they’ve not threaded it into the skills white paper. 

It looks like BEIS and the DfE aren’t working together. The DfE must think again, and bring the industrial strategies into the heart of the FE white paper.

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  1. If you view this article from an environmental perspective, it’s like watching two children squabling over who gets to burn the house down.

    Both the FE White Paper and the Industrial Strategy are just talking shops paying lip service to the most pressing issue we all face. It’s disappointing to see leaders automatically reaching for same old threadbare comfort blankets that led us to where we now are.