The government needs a skills strategy that cuts across every department, argues Stephen Evans

The recent scandal involving Learndirect, coupled with the ongoing troubles in our procurement processes, shows the need for a clear vision for learning and skills.

The Learndirect affair opens up a whole set of questions around corporate governance that also apply to quite a lot of the rest of our economy, and while it might be an extreme example, like a canary in a coalmine, its issues are symptoms of a bigger problem.

The recent, messy procurements for the adult education budget and the register of approved training providers are further symptoms. The pages of FE Week are filled with stories of late and sometimes contradictory changes to rules and guidance, and of many results that are odd at best.

I would say there are three larger problems.

Strategy for learning and skills

If the country doesn’t have an overall vision for learning and skills – and to be clear three million apprenticeships and reforms to technical education are only part of this – then the risk is that any process you embark on disappears down a rabbit hole. Whether it’s grant funding or competitive procurement, one decision leads to another, like driving a car and deciding to turn left or right without knowing where you’re trying to get to. I’ve been loath to call for a national learning and skills strategy (we’ve had so many over the years) but I’m now convinced of the need for one, and for it to be pan-government.

Vision for the market

Taking the various recent procurements together, it’s difficult to discern what the government’s vision for the market truly is. For example, does it want to increase the number of new providers, or is it happy with the current provider base? Does it want a smaller number of larger providers, or a greater diversity of smaller providers? How does this vary by sector and geography? When the employment minister David Freud said he wanted a small number of larger providers managing supply chains in welfare-to-work, whether you like it or not, it was a clear vision that drove decision-making. Absence of vision makes it challenging to run procurements and makes action taken outside the rules of these look like unfair special treatment. It’s like trying to get to somewhere without a map.

Commissioning skills

Setting a vision for a market and then managing that market takes a very different set of skills for civil servants than direct delivery or grant-funding delivery. Ministry of Justice officials have had to think about a market for probation services, rather than publicly delivered services. DWP officials have had to think about a market for welfare-to-work services rather than directly delivered services.

It’s easy to get depressed about the challenges

I would say the Cabinet Office needs to set out a clearer strategy for ensuring civil servants have the market-management skills they need (given the government’s desire to make greater use of markets) and for departments to learn from each-others’ experience. Perhaps this is a good use for the apprenticeship levy? You wouldn’t get behind the steering wheel without taking driving lessons.

It’s easy to get depressed about the challenges. For providers who’ve seen their budgets cut and can’t understand why, particularly when compared with others, that’s perfectly reasonable.

However, it’s great to FE having status in a government. We have perhaps a once-in-a-generation chance to make sure it’s at the centre of our national mission for social mobility and economic prosperity.

But to make that a reality we need some pretty urgent changes. These include being clear on what our strategy for learning and skills is, the plan for how to achieve it, and ensuring those overseeing the system have the skills they need.

This could not be more important for the people FE serves or the future of the country.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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