In the media lead up to yesterday's Autumn Statement, much was made about the progress of the economy and the spate of positive industry and sector statistics released over the last few weeks. I'm not such a cynic to suggest that there was any correlation between the two things (I'll leave that to others!), but there was a notable, and perhaps justified, sense of triumph in the tone of the statement relating to the facts and figures of the UK economy in a global context. However, what interested me most about the statement was the section devoted to the workplace, and how the Government intends to tackle this country's prominent skills gap.
Of course this is a topic that has been very much in the public eye of late, partly due to progress in other socio-economic areas, and more recently in the wake of a series of damning OECD surveys as to the UK's educational prowess in comparison to rival nations. As such, not only were a number of new measures outlined by the Chancellor yesterday, but the importance of getting people to work was highlighted as a key area in his statement introduction.
Of course, the first point to make is to welcome the fact that the Government clearly recognises the issue at hand. It's all very well having overseen a GDP rise of 0.8%, but if UK employers can't find the employees with the skills they need, then any real progress will be severely limited. By addressing this issue in such a high profile speech, the Government has at least shown a willingness to publicly engage in this important debate. However, just discussing the issue is certainly not enough, and of the actions that were announced in the statement, I do still have concerns as to how effective they will really be.
The most prominent of these was the announcement of the creation of 20,000 new apprenticeships. This is a nice solid statistic, but to those who work in the sector, it generates a whole raft of practical and logistical questions. The problem that exists at the moment is that far too much apprenticeship funding Is focused towards 16 and 17 year olds, when it is those who are 19 and above who really require these opportunities. While younger people of course need access and pathways into rewarding employment, it should not be at the expense of those who are older but have equal need. Indeed, simply by virtue of greater life experience and a longer period to consider what they want to do, older candidates are more likely to value the job and career opportunities they have. Certainly I feel the balance of funding allocation here sorely needs attention.
Closely allied with these new apprenticeships, George Osborne also proudly referenced its 'reform' of the apprenticeship system, based upon a review by Doug Richard released earlier in the year. A key tenant of this was to put employers in control - requiring them to register apprentices through an online system and then take responsibility for provider payments, expenditure and assessment reporting – receiving direct funding from the government into its accounts.
The problem with this is practical rather than ideological. Employers are naturally busy trying to run a business and may not have the resource, or the administrative inclination, to be able to do full justice to the scheme. Should this prove to be the case, the potential dangers could range from providers not being paid on time, to the learners having their actual qualifications delayed due to a lack of sufficient achievement recording. Employers clearly require well-trained staff, but in my experience they are hesitant to become overly involved in the educational/operational side of the training and would prefer to leave these aspects to the experts. My concern is that it could actually be counter-productive; making the apprenticeship 'chain' less efficient, and actually discouraging employer participation.
The other thing that struck me from yesterday's statement was the continued emphasis upon university – even to the extent of expressing a desire to compete with the US in terms of proportionate attendance. While this is far from mutually exclusive with the promotion of vocational education, I felt that the Government needed to de-emphasise university as the primary option for school and college leavers, rather than reassert that narrative. For many, university is absolutely the right option, but for an equally large number of people, it is not, and it is crucial that they are not made to feel that other pathways (such as apprenticeships, traineeship and vocational educational) are somehow 'secondary'. Indeed, it was this sustained imbalance over the last 10 to 15 years (with people being funneled through university regardless of its long-term value to careers) that created the skills gap in the first place.
Ultimately, pleased though I am that vocational education and apprenticeships are on the political agenda, it needs to be made easily available to a range of ages and efforts must be made to ensure it has equal prominence with university in the minds of the next generation. Furthermore, the Government must show that it understands the practical detail required to oversee the initiatives that it proposes. Personally, I am yet to be convinced.
Suzy Gunn is operations director at Active IQ, the awarding organization covering health, fitness, sport and recreation