From education to employment

Closing the skills gap needs a National Skills Strategy

Nichola Hay

Following the publication of AELP’s ‘Skills Means Growth‘ vision for a sustainable skills system, the organisation is publishing a series of articles expanding on each of the document’s five themes. In this article, AELP Chair, Nichola Hay MBE, outlines why the call for a national skills strategy is so important.

In an era characterised by rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, the race to net zero, economic uncertainty and global competition, the need for a comprehensive national skills strategy has never been more pressing. Learners, providers and employers all need long-term clarity to have the confidence to help fill the UK’s skills gap and galvanise UK economic growth.

There is widespread agreement across the political parties and the sector that the UK faces a significant skills gap challenge. For example, 30% of 18 year olds are not in education or training and this skills gap could cost the UK economy £120 billion by 2030. All this at a time when skills funding has halved in real terms over the last 12 years.  We know firms are struggling to find workers with the right skills, and often having to look abroad to fill the gaps, while providers are having to cut back skills provision in key sectors just to stay afloat.

An ineffective national skills strategy

However, despite these challenges, and the need for clarity, the current policy landscape is characterised by fragmentation and short-termism. Economic policy has cycled through the Northern Powerhouse, the UK Industrial Strategy and Levelling Up, and now we expect the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to relaunch the UK Industrial Strategy in his Autumn Statement. This chopping and changing in UK industrial policy is matched by a lack of a national skills strategy, which should complement and mirror industrial policy.

We want to see an effective national skills strategy that would deliver a long-term vision, tied to the priorities of the economy. It should provide certainty, continuity, clarity and consistency to the sector, giving learners, employers and providers that crucial ingredient to long-term success – confidence. Rishi Sunak said he is building a ‘world class education system’, but how can the sector play its part if it doesn’t know which way is north?

Summing up the current situation

The current situation is best summed up through two events this year. First, the apparent withdrawal of traineeships has left the country without a suitable pre-apprenticeship programme. It had been argued that T-Levels would eventually fill this gap, but they appear ready for the scrap heap before even getting going, and we all know that level 3 is not a suitable starting point for the thousands of young people who continue to leave school each year without a pass in maths and English. The T-Level transition year (or T-Level Foundation programme) was another route billed as bridging this gap, but evidence shows it has been the most ineffective part of the wider T-Level package.

Secondly, the Adult Education Budget procurement round this summer was a familiar story of last-minute decision-making. Providers were notified of their success or otherwise with weeks to go before delivery, leaving them recklessly short notice to either scale up or downsize to meet their new obligations. Providers cannot survive when their funding is year to year, and the status of skills programmes is uncertain.

Improving the current structure of skills policy and delivery

If providers do not survive, then learners will have nowhere to go to gain the skills they need to succeed. Our Skills Means Growth vision calls for a national skills strategy, alongside a restructuring of roles and responsibilities across the post-16 technical education sector. It is clear that the current structure of skills policy and delivery is not working for learners.

First, this means having a body that can oversee a national skills strategy – whether Labour’s Skills England or something similar; second, it means a review specifically of IfATE’s roles and responsibilities, acknowledging it may have too large a scope; and third, it means a sharing of accountability for skills policy across multiple government departments to encourage joined-up thinking. Encouraging more people into the labour market will take joint working between the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and His Majesty’s Treasury.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to argue against the fact that the patchwork of devolution in England has added another layer of complexity to the skills system, and this complexity is not just for providers, but also for employers. That’s because the part-decentralisation of national commissioning has not just added different levels of devolution, but new Mayoral Combined County Authorities (MCCAs) who are likely to have powers that look more like delegated, rather than devolved, responsibilities on skills.

AELP’s Skills Means Growth vision

In AELP’s Skills Means Growth vision, we call for the need to ensure that there is a national system which can be accessed locally, with local flexibilities, as well as the need for a common framework for skills commissioning across all devolved areas, allowing providers to meet those local flexibilities. Whilst recognising the need for local autonomy, ensuring there is suitable join-up across authorities is critical. We need a devolution landscape where the sum of local skills needs meets the sum of national skills needs.

A national skills strategy should get all parts of the sector pointing in the same direction, to the benefit of learners. It would align national and local interests, and better allow the skills sector to help tackle societal challenges, such as inequality, poverty, climate change and the challenges of artificial intelligence. It would help deliver livelier, more cohesive communities and give people pride in their careers.

A national skills strategy is imperative if we are to equip people with the skills they need to thrive in a world of fast-changing technology and structural changes in the economy. If people don’t thrive, neither will the economy.

By Nichola Hay MBE, Chair of AELP’s Board

FE News on the go…

Welcome to FE News on the go, the podcast that delivers exclusive articles from the world of further education straight to your ears.

We are experimenting with Artificial Intelligence to make our exclusive articles even more accessible while also automating the process for our team of project managers.

In each episode, our thought leaders and sector influencers will delve into the most pressing issues facing the FE sector, offering their insights and analysis on the latest news, trends, and developments.

Related Articles