Why so secret?: Skills and Productivity Board faces challenge on its silences

Were they silent, or were they silenced?

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The Department for Education has been criticised for failing to release board minutes for a new group of experts who heavily influence skills policy.

The Skills and Productivity Board was set up in October 2020 and has met seven times to date.

It includes a chair and team of six “leading skills and labour market economists” who provide independent “expert advice” on how courses and qualifications should align to the skills that employers need post-Covid-19.

Despite being launched 12 months ago, the DfE has not published a single set of board minutes for any of their seven meetings.

A department spokesperson said minutes would be published in “due course” – a line they have told FE Week for the past six months.

FE Week has attempted to contact individual members of the Skills and Productivity Board for information about their work, but they have been sworn to secrecy and told not to talk to the media by the DfE.

Sue Pember, a former top skills civil servant in the DfE who is now the policy director of adult education network HOLEX, said she had “forgotten about the board” because it has “been invisible”.

“I would have thought they would have asked us to contribute to the evidence on what is needed locally to support adults into new industries etc,” she added. “I’m surprised they are not publishing minutes or publishing interim reports.”

Toby Perkins MP, Labour’s shadow minister for further education and skills, is concerned about the secrecy surrounding the board’s work.

He said: “This is a government that has been plagued by insider meetings and crony contracts. This cannot be allowed to extend to other areas of policy making.

“At a time when skills shortages and post-16 education has been at the forefront of the political agenda, transparency about government policy making should be paramount. These minutes must be published without delay.”

Stephen van Rooyen, an executive vice president at international broadcaster Sky, was named as the first chair of the Skills and Productivity Board in September 2020, but he left the position because of “family reasons” in August 2021. 

He has been replaced by Angela Noon, chief financial officer and executive director of industrial manufacturing giant Siemens. Noon chaired her first meeting with the board last month.

The board’s “remit for 2020 to 2021” was published in November 2020. It was told to prioritise answering the following questions over the next 12 months:

  • Which areas of the economy face the most significant skills mismatches or present growing areas of skills need? 
  • Can the board identify the changing skills needs of several priority areas within the economy over the next five to ten years? 
  • How can skills and the skills system promote productivity growth in areas of the country that are poorer performing economically?

Then education secretary Gavin Williamson said the evidence and analysis the board produces will play a “significant part in addressing the most pressing gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the labour market, helping to rebuild our economy post-Covid-19 and deliver a bold skills agenda”. 



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