21st Century Skills

Realising Our Potential, The Skills Strategy White Paper.

This was a real opportunity to provide a lead in combating future skill shortages, however Dr Dick Evans wonders whether anything tangible has been offered.

The aim of the national Skills Strategy is to ensure that employers have the right skills to support the success of their businesses and individuals have the skills they need to be both employable and personally fulfilled.

I intend to adopt a different perspective in reviewing the White Paper. Other contributors to ‘t’ magazine will provide a detailed analysis of the proposals and recommendations contained in the document. My approach will focus on whether or not the strategy will address and resolve the many complex issues associated with skills shortages and explore the wider issues that have to be considered for its success. Having been interested in this area for many years and having experienced first hand the various attempts by this and previous governments to tackle this long-standing matter I read the document with great interest and eager anticipation.

The first impression is of a glossy document, rich in rhetoric and jargon, self congratulatory, (nothing seems to have happened before 1997), light on meaningful references and full of case studies which add little to the important issues associated with this topic. Interesting how plain English has now been replaced by politically motivated communication strategies. When reading such documents, especially by this government one is reminded of the T.S. Eliot namely:

“Between the idea and the reality between the motion and the act Falls the Shadow”.

The shadow is often associated with resources, (funding, staffing and capital and equipment costs) and the lack of a long-term strategic framework that is truly consistent, coherent and comprehensive, free from political intervention and dogma. Also it is the neglect of the wider issues that will affect the delivery of the strategy that causes concerns. The ultimate success of the strategy depends critically on such elements as the current skills shortages especially in the teaching force, declining national productivity and investment and the ability of the government to fund the proposals and the resultant expectation by the government that employers and individual learners will make greater contributions to their learning. Couple this with the singular failure to develop an effective labour market intelligence system and concerns about this strategy increase.

The proposals are set against a worsening financial climate with an accelerating and significant trade deficit, low national growth rates, increasing personal debt, the declining rate of inward investment in this country and the continued decrease in the wealth creating base of this country. The latest concern is the £160 billion deficit in corporate pension funds, which will reduce essential investment in Research and Development and equally important in training. These along with other issues associated with the current questionable fiscal policy further weakens the way the proposals in the White Paper will be realised. With a finite budget for education and training, the next spending review might provide a growth rate slightly in excess of 2.5%, then if certain training priorities identified in the document are to receive additional funding other areas of provision will be starved. Creative accounting methods will abound and employers and individual learners will have to make greater contributions e.g. top-up fees in HE, possible new loan arrangements that might be introduced for learners and a greater requirement for employers to make larger contributions. One inevitable consequence of the failure to reach the Chancellor’s over optimistic growth targets is a drastic revision in the fiscal policy for the next financial cycle with higher direct and indirect taxation resulting and further depressing learner and company finances. The document does not clarify how funding will be managed across the whole spectrum of education and training and what conditions will attach to the successor’s of ILAs or the loan regimes that might be introduced. Words like ‘support’, ‘help’,‘safeguard’ and ‘strengthen’ (pages 13-15) do not engender confidence in staff that have to manage institutional finances. It’s this vagueness that pervades the document must surely raise more questions than answers.

The document is full of statements about the need to rationalise and integrate existing structures involved in training and to maximise the effect of partnerships and collaborative endeavours but it’s difficult to see how this will be realised by creating yet more overseeing organisations e.g. the creation of the National Skills Alliance. The post-16 education and training landscape already presents a variable and confusing geometry of organisations and is in desperate need of rationalisation but it’s difficult to see how this will be achieved. The track record of most of the main players does not bode well for success – speaking to practitioners at post-16 conferences and seminars one is struck by the lack of confidence in the Local Learning and Skills Councils and the Regional Development Agencies. Major concerns are now being expressed about the emerging Sector Skills Councils and their ability to tackle existing let alone future skills requirements. All these will be the key players in the strategy formulating plan and tactics for the training providers to action whilst the colleges and training providers struggle to make sense of the current complex funding methodologies that are being introduced. Basic costs continue to increase for the providers such as NI contributions, insurance costs, costs of inspections and additional bureaucracy all of which reduce the ability to fund improvements or new provision. The White Paper does not address these key issues in a manner, which engenders confidence.

It’s also difficult to understand the projected implementation dates associated with the strategy. The whole paper mentions that the strategy is not about creating new initiatives but building upon existing ones and yet it makes reference to other reforms that are underway. These include: the creation of 23 Sector Skill Councils by 2004, the Tomlinson report and the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME). The Tomlinson committee is reviewing ‘A’ levels and has only just published its first report with a proposal to introduce a baccalaureate type examination from 2010! The report indicates that English, Specific Sciences and Mathematics might not be compulsory in the proposed baccalaureate so perhaps the report is signalling that these subjects will have major problems in recruiting and retaining specialist teachers. The ACME chaired by Sir Chris Smith is looking at mathematics education over a three-year period and it is again not clear how the work of this important committee will impact on skills shortages. Previous articles on skills shortages have shown the crisis in teacher shortages particularly in the vocational subjects including mathematics that by definition will be central to this strategy. The document quite rightly mentions the urgent need to increase the flow of highly qualified technicians and craftspeople into key areas of employment but the continued decline in the key strategic areas of employment e.g. manufacturing could mean that there will be no need for significant numbers of technicians, as no significant employment opportunities will exist when these reforms have any meaningful impact.

Skill shortages exist across most areas of employment and yet one of the key elements is hardly mentioned namely shortages in teachers, lecturers and other specialist tutors in such areas as basic and key skills, science, engineering, built environment technologies, modem languages and mathematics. These are the people who will be pivotal in delivering this strategy and who will facilitate learning and widen and increase participation for all the potential learners that the White Paper is addressing. The strategy does not provide proposals for how specialist staff will be recruited and retained and there is little reference to the critical fact that many will soon be retiring further depleting the stock of expertise. A number of government policies for attracting and retaining teachers e.g. ‘golden handshakes and handcuffs’ are not working, particularly in the strategically important areas.

The strategy stresses the importance of bringing about greater integration between existing agencies to develop more effective collaboration and partnerships e.g. the RDAs, SSC network, LSCs and JobcentrePlus. A national Skills Alliance will be established to bring together the key government departments with employer and union representatives to create a new social partnership, which will link with key delivery agencies to tackle skill shortages and raise skill levels. It all sounds plausible but as always the devil is in the detail i.e. the factors that create the shadows and produce the gaps between expectation/aspiritation and reality. Additional concerns and questions emerge the more you reflect on the strategy namely:

  • It’s only for England following devolution of the other home countries. This surely does not make sense considering the greater mobility of labour and learners. Also an interesting tension will now occur following the announcement by the deputy prime minister to hold referenda for a number of English regions (interesting no mention of this in the White Paper) to create regional assembles. So much for joined up thinking!
  • Will the various governments really work together when there is little historical evidence to support that worthy aspiration?
  • The strategy’s centre piece is the Skills Alliance but it is unclear how this will bring about rationalisation and improved coordination and how it will create an effective set of strategies at local, regional and national level. How representative can it be?
  • It’s not clear if the strategy is about less or more centralist control and management – will it be more like a social partnership or big brother?
  • How will labour market intelligence be improved, managed and coordinated and actioned at a local, regional and national level?

Overall it is a disappointing strategy and has missed a number of golden opportunities to once and for all address and resolve the long-standing problems associated with skills. It adopts a rather hesititant incremental approach instead of a root and branch reform that is urgently required for this important issue. As many have said in the past let history be the judge and the devil is always in the detail.

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