From education to employment

To close skills gaps, unlock prosperity and kick-start social mobility we must urgently reform skills policy development

Chris Jones, Chief Executive at City & Guilds Group

The pace of change in today’s workplaces is unprecedented.

Rapid advances in technology, multiple generations working together for longer, and even changes to how, where and when we engage with work are all rewriting what it means to be in work.

Add to this our existing skills crisis and further complexity around the availability of talent in the UK as we change our relationship with the EU, and it’s something of a perfect storm.

In this context, we desperately need robust and effective skills and education policies that not only keep up with these changes, but anticipates and stays ahead of them.

It’s astonishing then, to uncover that £15 billion has been spent on just 7 skills policies over the past 14 years.

And yet the DfE skills index, which aims to show how the aggregate value of the skills supplied by the FE system each year has changed over time, demonstrates that the value of the policies rolled out has dropped from a baseline score of 100 in 2012-13 to just 73 in data released this April.

This means that many £billions being invested in skills and education initiatives may be going to waste.

The latest research from City & Guilds Group – Sense & Instability 2019 – highlights this critical issue clearly and urgently.

This deep-dive exploration of skills and education policy created over 15 years finds that this is being developed in isolation, without clear success measures in mind and often without any clear evidence base to justify it.

This not only makes it difficult to see what impact policy is intended to have, it makes it impossible to judge whether it’s a success or failure. While it’s of course very likely there is good and effective policy out there, that is making a valuable difference, we have no clear way of knowing.

Take, for example, Train to Gain. Our report found that despite spending £1.5bn of public money, the lack of measures to assess the learning trajectory of those who had enrolled on training, but not yet received a qualification, means there is a clear evidence gap to adequately evaluate the programme’s effectiveness.

This is not good enough. As an industry, we must collectively call Government and policymakers to account.

It is not just a problem for the country’s employers and our economy, although both will undoubtedly suffer if we do not close skills gaps and ensure we have a workforce equipped with the skills needed to remain competitive. It is also one of the vital social issues of our age.

Recent studies from the Social Mobility Commission and the Institute for Fiscal Studies point to a rise in inequality in the UK and a deeply concerning stagnation of social mobility.

Education and training is the number one driver of social mobility, but unless effective policy is in place, this won’t happen.

Key recommendations to review the design and delivery of education policy

In light of these findings, we are calling on the Government to urgently review the design and delivery of education policy and have developed a number of recommendations.

Long-term skills policy

Firstly, unless we create skills policy that takes a longer-term view, is backed by a solid evidence base and is built with a clear business case and impact in mind, we are letting down not just our economy, but individuals too.

This means moving away from over ambitious targets that evaluate volume of throughput at the expense of measuring the value of the contribution this makes to society, and using policy hypotheses that are robustly and properly tested before implementation. The research highlighted a worryingly low number of pilots used in policy development, for example – a clear opportunity.

Dedicated strategies for the most disadvantaged and hardest-to-reach

To support this further, we must develop a value for money framework for skills policy – one that learns from best practice seen in other departments and embeds not only money measures into all new policy, but consideration for equitable outcomes as well.

As we celebrate City & Guilds Group’s 140th anniversary this year, we appreciate more than ever the positive benefits of training and education. But this research highlights that the most disadvantaged and hardest-to-reach people – who often have the most to gain from skills policy – are still being missed out and overlooked. This is nothing short of a travesty. We need dedicated strategies to help these learner groups better access programmes.

A new, independent body to oversee skills policy development

We also need a longer-term perspective in policy development. This is challenging in the face of continued political churn.

In the past three decades there have been 70 Secretaries of State responsible for skills compared with 20 responsible for schools and 21 for HE.

We continue to believe the sector would benefit from the creation of a new, independent body to oversee skills policy development, creating an evidence base to support-it, and designing and delivering initiatives that are joined up and effective. This would also act as a body to bring together groups from across the skills ecosystem – including employers – and ensure policy works for all.

This is not the first time we have proposed this solution, but we firmly believe this would help create policy that has real and measurable impact and show that the hard work, time and financial investment policymakers put into developing new initiatives is well-spent.

We know this is not an easy task – and that this sector is not alone in facing the problems of fragmented and short-term policy. But we have to get this right. We urge policymakers and the industry to work together and solve these challenges.

Chris Jones, Chief Executive at City & Guilds Group

Related Articles