The publication of the recent Local Government Association (LGA) report on a so-called “skills mismatch” in further education is deeply disappointing.
It represents a backward step to outdated and discredited approaches to labour market planning and threatens to undermine moves towards a more fruitful strategic co-operation between colleges and local authorities that we in the 157 Group have been seeking to encourage. If local authorities seriously think that it is practicable to manage the supply of courses on the basis of incomplete and imperfect statistics about jobs and vacancies they will find themselves seriously out of step with current thinking in vocational education.
The links between education and employment are complex and the public debate is not well served by oversimplifying them. In relation to jobs, for example, one needs to take into account opportunities for self employment as well as advertised vacancies; to take account of informal as well as formal channels of recruitment and reflect the fact that when employers recruit they do not always select using those qualifications that observers think that they should. Occupations differ in the extent to which they train and promote in house, and the extent to which they recruit young people rather than adults.
In relation to vocational education for young people, we need to remember that it is more than training in a narrow set of skills for current jobs. It is concerned to prepare them for a lifetime as citizens as well as employees; for a world in which they are likely to change jobs several times and where they will need regularly to update their skills: and as countless opinion surveys repeat “soft skills” such as attitude to work, adaptability and the willingness to learn are far more important to employers than specific skills or knowledge.
In the light of these complexities it is sad
that the LGA report continues to churn out tired stereotypes on the basis of highly imperfect data – by their own admission about two thirds of their qualifications data
cannot be neatly fitted into a sectoral analysis of occupations.
Those in further education know, for example, that hairdressing offers lots of opportunities for self employment and part-time work, and provides transferable skills that are valued in many other contexts,such as reception
and call centre businesses. It is no surprise to anyone who knows more than just statistics that industry doesn’t recruit health and
safety officers from 17-year-olds with shiny new certificates; and it doesn’t need much research to find out that there are more
vacancies per qualified individual in London than in the North East.
Local authorities have much to offer the learning and skills system if they step back from attempting to micro-manage provision. They have important roles in promoting economic development, in leading social regeneration and in helping shape and support communities. Working with employers and others in LEPs they have the potential to catalyse growth in their locality.
If they act as strategic partners to colleges sharing their aspirations and knowledge, and aligning their resources with those of the sector they will find that colleges are only too ready to respond; but if they hark back to the days when town halls tried to dictate course planning they will condemn themselves to sitting on the sidelines as decisions are taken elsewhere.
Lynne Sedgmore, Executive director of the 157 Group