We’ve been here before. But in skills policy we’ve been everywhere before. Putting employers at the heart of the system and committing to high quality education and training are not new. These have been objectives for most ministers and in most green and white papers for the last three decades.
Just before Christmas, the Further Education Trust for Leadership produced an excellent primer on our record over that time: Honourable Histories and hats off to Ewart Keep, Tom Richmond and Ruth Silver for capturing what they describe as a “blinding froth of activity”.
The challenge for skills policy in England is not setting out ambitious reform plans, it is sticking to them. Since the Further and Higher Education Act in 1992 there have been fifteen government commissioned reviews of FE or the skills system in England, or significant aspects of it, at least fifteen white papers and five major Acts of Parliament. There have been seven different departments overseeing FE and at least thirty junior ministers with responsibility for skills – though notably between July and December 2019 the Government forgot to appoint one. Gavin Williamson is the 13th Secretary of State with responsibility for FE.
Williamson, like others before him, found in his round of media interviews on his flagship Skills for Jobs white paper that it is tough to get anyone to care in the first place. Interviewer after interviewer led on schools reopening, on exams, on testing for Covid-19 and his own performance as the Secretary of State. The white paper got the very barest of mentions.
For Williamson his best headlines have come when he’s set up FE announcements at the same time as giving a good kick at universities – such as when he promoted the reform of level four and five qualifications as a way of “abolishing” Tony Blair’s 50 per cent young participation in HE target. Never mind that they would have counted too. But he might have expected to get some traction from combining the FE white paper with the long delayed responses to the Augar and Pearce Reviews and a consultation on university admissions.
Kicking the can
These reforms are important and in some cases, potentially transformative, for a system that needs to be better funded as well as a more significant player in our local and national recovery post Covid. Properly funded and governed FE matters and so too does a functioning vocational qualifications system from levels one to six.
But like the very short interim Augar response, DFE is seeking major system change with few upfront financial commitments from the Treasury. That may come – as it might for a rethinking of the entire tertiary system – in a comprehensive spending review in the autumn. But it might not. After all, the Treasury has other things and other spending on its list.
As with Augar, that is a very big can being kicked down quite a long road. The real transformative decisions about the whole post 18 education system haven’t yet been called.
There is, though, more clarity in other areas including many that will already be familiar to both FE and HE audiences. Boosting upper technical learning at levels four and five – Augar’s “missing middle” – more on T levels and institutes of technology and restating FE capital commitments and the lifetime skills guarantee. Even the local skills improvement plans are built largely on the model of local skills advisory panels first recommended in the 2017 Conservative manifesto.
Employer appetite for engaging in skills
Given the continuing promise to rebalance the tertiary system across FE and HE and to drive universities in the direction of employers and regional skills needs via the restructuring regime, it is worth taking a closer look at the details of the white paper, particularly those centred on employers, places and people.
The first and perhaps most obvious criticism of Skills for Jobs is that none of these – employers, places, people – are homogenous groups and yet for the most part in the white paper, they are treated as if they are.
It makes sense to have employers playing a leading role in a vocational training system, but we should also accept that this has been an aim for some considerable time and that over the last decade the statistics for employer and employee participation have been going in the wrong direction.
The latest Employer Skills Survey shows a fall in the amount of time employees spend in training – from 7.8 days per year in 2011 to 6.4 days in 2017. In 1998 just over a third (36 per cent) of training programmes lasted less than a week but this has increased to over half (54 per cent).
According to CIPD, the overall investment in training by employers increased slightly from £43.8 billion in 2011 to £44.2 billion in 2017. But at the same time the size of the workforce has grown rapidly, which means this is actually a real-term cut over the same period of 16.7 per cent per trainee, or a fall of 6.3 per cent per employee.
So overall it is questionable whether many employers will have sufficient interest, capacity or expertise in playing such a strategic role in qualification design and system delivery. Or if they do, whether it is sufficient or right for the system as a whole. There are also decisions about which employers might need the most help, and which are the ones that can genuinely provide expertise in designing delivery for others.
Low pay, low productivity sectors will be key targets for increased training activity. They have been for a long time. While the FE sector has a role across all firms it is here that it can be the most transformative. It is also clear that employees might cycle in and out of precarious or low paid work in these sectors and into periods of unemployment.
Across these shifts will be the complexities of Universal Credit and, for a while, the Coronavirus Job Protection (furlough) scheme. The OBR expects unemployment to rise to a peak of 7.5 per cent (2.6 million people) in the second quarter of this year. The Bank of England makes a similar prediction for unemployment peaking at 7.7 per cent in April to June, but it admits that it’s very hard to predict, saying there’s a small chance it could rise as high as 10 per cent. Apart from a case study – “Hi I’m Cheryl” on page 44, where she attends a “digital boot camp” and gets a job in a “local technology firm” – there is virtually no mention of unemployment, or of joint working with the Department for Work and Pensions.
There is no great understanding of employers in better performing, more productive sectors either. Here they are likely to do more training but will have multiple entry points into multiple, still competing systems whether through the apprenticeship levy, level four and five, private and bespoke training providers, universities and through research and development.
Policy in a vacuum
This might put more emphasis on co-ordinating or joining up wider government activity, but it does not. There is very limited mention of these issues and no plan for linking to spending or sectoral support from BEIS or UK Research and Innovation, let alone to other parts of DfE. When the government is doubling spending on R&D, BEIS is refreshing its industrial strategy and UKRI developing a place based R&D strategy, these are a set of big opportunities that the Skills for Jobs white paper misses.
The recommendation for employers driving local skills improvement plans suffers from the same problem. There is no obvious link to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government agendas on place or to levelling up, which gets only one mention in the whole document. That is a broader political problem given its first order priority elsewhere but also a practical gap for the white paper.
There is no sense that new local plans and the systems that create them will build on devolution, city regions, local authorities or even LEP footprints. Chambers of Commerce are mentioned as potential key partners but although important local institutions, they aren’t as powerful or have as much capacity as they do in countries like Germany. All of these issues are problematic and require further thought. Taken together they point to more serious challenges for DfE.
Primarily the white paper feels like it’s been developed in a vacuum. Its conception of employers is overly theoretical and homogenised and the same can be said of its one size vision for employees and local economies too. The vacuum extends to other parts of Whitehall. Potential links with other departmental agendas such as those at DWP, BEIS and MHCLG have been largely ignored. The Treasury is ominously silent.
But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the white paper’s lack of knowledge or understanding of past policy failures in all of these areas. All of the many reviews, white papers and ministers that have come before have done so with the best of intentions and assumptions that new reforms would be in place for some time. None have been and the odds are that nor will these.