“Two steps forward and one step back”: it’s a case of some sense, but too much instability in the skills sector

November 29 2016  —  by Chris Jones, Chief Executive, City & Guilds Group

Back in October 2014, we launched our report, ‘Sense & Instability: three decades of skills and employment policy’. At the time, the UK economy was strengthening, and youth unemployment had not long recovered from its peak of 20%. At the tail end of 2014, election fever took over and skills were very much at the top of the agenda. In that period we saw something of an ‘apprenticeships arms race’, with each of the main political parties trying to out-do the others when it came to apprenticeship policy, in the hope that their pledges would win the hearts and minds of the voting public.

Since then, there’s been a UK general election, the Brexit vote, multiple reshuffles and a new Prime Minister intent on bringing back grammar schools – not to mention the results of the recent American election. It’s clear that our world remains as unstable as ever.

That’s why we decided to compile an update to our 2014 Sense & Instability report – to see if such instability persisted in the world of skills. Because whilst there’s little we can do about the larger shifts in power, as employers and educators we are not powerless when it comes to skills. In these uncertain times, skills are not just a safe investment but a necessary one – particularly if we want to fill skills gaps and boost productivity in the UK.

Looking back over what has happened since the 2014 report, the Government should be praised for the good progress it has made so far. True to its word, when the Conservative Government came into power in 2015, it maintained its commitment to achieving three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. Of course the focus should always be on getting the quality right first, before aiming for quantity – but we cannot deny that apprenticeships are now firmly part of the national conversation, and starting to be seen as a valuable alternative to university. Likewise the Government has taken a number of steps to simplify the skills system, and give employers more responsibility for driving the skills agenda.

The Government has also launched a number of initiatives to simplify the system and put employers firmly in the driving seat of the skills agenda. The apprenticeship levy is transforming the way that apprenticeships are funded, and reinforcing the drive towards an employer-led system. The Post-16 Skills Plan, launched in the summer of 2016, aims to simplify the vocational route for young people to 15 core pathways. The Area Based Reviews programme aims to ensure that Further Education provision is based on the needs of individuals and employers in each area.

Change continues to be a common theme throughout skills and employment policy, but we are arguably seeing fewer, bigger changes and a more consistent approach to long-term skills policy. And this is definitely a step in the right direction. 

However, many of the underlying barriers to the successful implementation of policy reform identified in the first report remain.

Firstly, we still see a high level of instability when it comes to who has overall responsibility for skills. There have now been 65 Secretaries of State responsible for skills and employment policy in the past three decades. The skills remit has passed between departments 11 times, and is now back within the Department of Education.

Secondly there has also been little improvement in learning from past failures on implementation.  The Government continues to set high targets, despite the potential adverse effects of compromising on quality; proposed timescales are rushed, meaning insufficient time to garner the necessary support of employers or educators; the risk of initiatives failing to be embedded properly persists; and there’s a lack of consideration for the longer-term impact of some of the changes in scope.

Finally and most worryingly, some policies, such as the Post-16 Skills Plan, have included minimal consultation with the wider sector, meaning the Government is missing out on what could be valuable insight to help shape policy implementation.

It’s a case of two steps forward, one step back. Unless the Government hits the ‘pause’ button and takes the time to reflect and consult, it could be setting its skills initiatives up to fail, and undoing its good work over the past few years.

That’s why we are recommending the following for the Government:

  1. To develop a consolidated, consultative approach to Further Education and skills policy.

  2. To ensure learning opportunities for youth and disadvantaged groups

  3. To focus on quality rather than quantity

  4. To ensure greater ownership and engagement from employers.

We need a skills system that helps us become more competitive and productive as a nation in a fast-changing world. That means we have to get the implementation right. If we don’t, any progress we’ve made will be wasted.

Chris Jones

As Chief Executive, Chris Jones’ role is to set the strategic direction of the City & Guilds Group and lead the Management Board. Since joining in 2008, he has led City & Guilds through a period of significant growth, which has enabled further investment in the organisation to benefit its learners. Chris plays a prominent role in driving the national and international skills agenda – something he has personal experience of as he followed the vocational education path himself. He is a member of the Business in the Community Talent and Skills Leadership team and a Governor at the Activate Learning group of colleges, formerly the Oxford and Cherwell Valley College Group. Before joining City & Guilds, Chris held several senior management positions in Pearson and Reed Elsevier. In his former post, he transformed Harcourt Education International, implementing a customer-centric vision to grow revenue. Chris also served as Senior Vice President at LexisNexis Risk Management Group and Group Director at Financial Times Electronic Publishing.