The skills bill endgame ushers in a new age of paternalism

3 Apr 2022, 6:00

The skills bill brings to a head over four decades of state-ist beliefs, writes Tom Bewick

The skills bill has entered the last of its parliamentary stages, known as ‘ping-pong’. This rather cute verb, like the game of table tennis, is an apt way of describing the battle of wills now under way between the elected Commons and the appointed House of Lords.

Considering the government has a majority in the Commons, and the most seats of any one political party in the Lords, the outcome has never been in doubt. Ministers and senior officials will get their way.

But it is worth reflecting perhaps on why the government has endured so many defeats in the upper house. A number of chunky amendments have passed with cross-party support, only to be overturned in the Commons.

When historians come to look at this landmark piece of legislation they may wonder why two towering titans of post-war education reform ̶ Lord Baker (Conservative education secretary, 1986-1989) and Lord Blunkett (Labour education secretary, 1997-2001) ̶ found themselves in such agreement trying to change so many aspects of a fundamentally flawed bill.

From the get-go, ministers have been clear that their desire is to give themselves and related quangos more statutory powers to design, fund, defund and direct technical education reforms from the centre.

As Baker observed in his speech last week: “At no stage have any government or minister said that a student cannot take two qualifications that are funded and available. This has never happened before in our history, so why is it being done now? The government have never justified this, and it is extraordinary.”

Similarly, despite the introduction of local skills improvement plans, officials in Whitehall will ultimately sign them off.

Amendments were tabled to significantly strengthen the role of elected mayoral authorities, but what we’ve got instead is watered-down devolution.

The same is true of qualifications reform. The view appears to be that colleges, course leaders and learners cannot be trusted to make informed choices.

Students in future will not be able to combine A-levels and T Levels. It seems we’re entering a new age of paternalism where decisions are best made by the state in the form of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

And don’t believe all the hype about this being some employer-driven skills revolution. It’s nothing of the sort.

Don’t believe all the hype that this is an employer-led skills revolution

The parliamentary under-secretary, Alex Burghart, proudly boasts of 250 employers being engaged in the design of these technical education reforms to date.

Is he seriously trying to tell us, in a British economy of 5.6 million firms, that a cohort equivalent to just 0.0045 per cent of all employers is some groundswell example of popular reform?

No, this is a top-down technocratic revolution that brings to a head over four decades of state-ist beliefs that the answer to our relatively poor productivity and skills performance is more bureaucracy. It does not matter if the ministers are Labour or Conservative.

The architect of these reforms, Lord Sainsbury, wrote a book in 2020, praising the authoritarian impulses of the Chinese Communist Party. What more need I say?

Indeed, without any apparent irony about who has been in charge this past decade, chancellor Rishi Sunak recently lamented the UK’s comparative inability to equip adults with vocational technical qualifications, and the fact employers invest about half the European average on workplace training.

Of course, the government would say the post-16 skills and education bill is the answer. Instead we will end up with an imperfect law that future generations will be able to build on.

For instance, the genie is out of the bottle on the lifetime skills guarantee. It’s only a matter of time before we see a statutory right to lifelong learning.

As in all great parliamentary and policy battles, the committed among us will live on to fight another day.

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