The Public Accounts Committee questioned the Department for Education’s top civil servants on their plans for skills reform this week.
Giving evidence to the MPs was DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood (pictured centre), and the department’s director general of skills Paul Kett (pictured left).
Here’s what we learned…
Officials ‘pretty confident’ employer-led system is right direction of travel
The government has embarked on an “employer-led” approach to its skills reform agenda after finding this method worked successfully in other countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands.
But in July 2022 the National Audit Office reported that there is a “risk that, despite government’s greater activity and good intent, its approach may be no more successful than previous attempts to provide the country with the skills it needs”.
Acland-Hood told MPs the DfE was “pretty confident that that having an employer-led system is the right direction of travel”. She said this view was based on “quite a lot of international evidence” and a “whole string of incredibly thorough and thoughtful reports about our systems” from the likes of Lord Sainsbury, Baroness Alison Wolf, Dame Mary Ney, and Sir Philip Augar, who all made the same conclusion.
‘Nowhere in the world does retraining well’
Kett told the committee the UK’s biggest issue is overcoming barriers to people retraining throughout their life – and it is a major problem all over the globe.
“When we looked around the world when it comes to retraining in particular, there is nowhere in the world that does this really well.
“And so one of the things we’re trying to do is make sure we’re keeping that conversation going because everyone is wrestling with this challenge and we need to kind of keep learning from one another.”
Kett explained that the skills bootcamp model that has been rolled out in recent years is one that several other nations are “very interested in”. He explained this is because there is a consistent theme that employer “skin in the game” is critical to the retraining challenge.
Skills shortages can be UK’s ‘friend’ to ensure reforms work
Successive governments have made various attempts at reforming the skills agenda in the UK, but it is widely accepted that none of them have worked.
Asked why this government’s attempt would be different, Acland-Hood said: “I do think some of the challenges in the current context are also our friends. We have a very tight labour market, which is really incentivising people to think hard about this at this moment. And I’m a great believer in making sure that if you are in difficult circumstances, you do everything you can to try and turn that into change and improvement for the future.”
Kett added that putting Local Skills Improvement Plans on a statutory footing under law ensures they have “teeth” as colleges and training providers must now have regard for offering provision that meets the needs of their local area.
Skills system is complex but ‘not because we’re all idiots’
Committee MP Kate Green said employers feel the skills system is “disjointed” and listed off a stat from the Local Government Association that identified 49 employment programmes in nine government departments and agencies.
Acland-hood admitted this complexity can deter employers from engaging in training and retraining and the government is working on ways to “rationalise skills programmes”.
“We’re increasingly trying to work with other government departments who are leads for particular sectors so that rather than designing additional programmes, what they do is work with us to articulate needs and then we design through the kind of main suite of programmes,” she said.
The permanent secretary added that it is “incumbent on us to keep trying to make the system simpler for people” but the challenge is that the government has “two countervailing forces of people want the system to be simple and intelligible, but they also want courses available that relatively precisely meet their need”.
“It’s not complicated just because we’re all idiots, it’s complicated because there is this kind of deep desire for really kind of precise and tailored training and we have to design system allows tailoring within a kind of intelligible framework.”
New Unit for Future Skills struggled to recruit
The DfE has created a “Unit for Future Skills” to replace its “Skills and Productivity Board” which was in place for only a year. The unit is an analytical and research division set up to improve the quality of available jobs and skills data.
But Kett revealed the department was “experiencing some of the challenges recruiting highly skilled analysts” and had to borrow staff from the Office for National Statistics to get the unit off the ground in April.
The team, which currently has 18 staff, has “struggled to recruit to its full complement but we will get there”, he explained. “It’s not now affecting the work that they’re doing. It’s a growing unit and we will continue to make sure we secure the right people in that team.”
Apprentice dropout exit interviews to start this month
Acland-Hood told the committee the government is exploring the “challenge” of apprenticeship dropouts, explaining that there was a “significant shift in completion rates when we moved from apprenticeship frameworks to apprenticeship standards”.
Government data shows that only 53 per cent of apprentices on the new-style standards stayed on their programme until their end-point assessment in 2020/21 – meaning that 47 per cent dropped out.
The drop-out rate for frameworks was 17 percentage points lower than standards in 2020/21.
Acland-Hood said standards are harder to complete and many apprentices simply leave their programme to go into a better job after gaining the skills they need but before getting to their end-point assessment, which goes some way to explaining the rise in dropouts. She admitted completions need to be higher.
Kett said the DfE will this month launch a new exit interview feature for apprentices who drop out to better understand their reasons for doing so. The feature was first announced by then skills minister Alex Burghart in June.
“We don’t collect that [individual reasons for dropouts] systematically at the moment and this new data collection that launches this month will collect that for us,” Kett said.