The Government ministerial reshuffle last month brought in a wave of female talent to the Cabinet. This is very welcome. Research evidence seems to indicate that diverse boards result in better decision-making. The reshuffle also moved some middle ranking ministers up, over and out. The former Skills Minister Matthew Hancock was promoted to a new role as Minister of State for Business in the Business, Innovation and Skills ministry. Stepping into his shoes is the talented Mr Boles.
Nick Boles is a former wonk. He founded and ran Policy Exchange and was a leading driver of the campaign to modernise the Tory Party's policies in the mid noughties. He is allegedly still close to David Cameron, is driven by ideas and the power of ideas to elicit the sort of change he believes is necessary. So what should he do while in charge of the Skills' brief until May 2015 and the next election?
Being a former think tanker Nick Boles understands how to lobby, so what follows in the rest of this blog is in the form of an open letter.
First, many congratulations on your new ministerial role. Skills policy requires first class thinking and first class policy-making and in you the skills sector can be sure to receive both. Working, as I do, in Further Education I have a particular interest in what will happen to FE under your brief. In order to influence your thinking I would therefore ask you to consider the following:
• The FE sector has experienced a veritable tsunami of change over the last four years. Change, as you know, is destabilising. For example one KPMG report cited the fact that 85% of mergers and acquisitions failed to add value even three years after the event. In the 8 months you have before the next election I would urge you to focus on evaluating which changes are working and which need fine-tuning rather than engage in any big new initiatives. It seems to be the case that the cuts to funding are affecting mid-cap Colleges and those with little ability to drive new sources of commercial revenue. What for example are the local labour market dynamics affecting particular colleges in some parts of the country where unemployment remains high and growth depressed?
• Trust the local decision-makers more to decide local skills strategies and policies. I have written previously on the power of. local collaboration to create the local skills eco-systems the country requires for growth. What more resource could you place at the disposal of these sorts of efforts and how can local enterprise partnerships be better enabled to deliver some of the architecture required? Encouraging local skills boards, for example, might help foster better business-provider interaction.
• Focus on making the arguments for a genuine dual system in the UK with No 10 and HM Treasury. Sustainable growth cannot be delivered through the Russell Group and our elite academic schools alone. We need a thriving skills system and better recognition for excellence in vocational education. Why not investigate the potential of creating the Chartered Education and Training Foundation for example enabling FE lecturers to become chartered members? Driving up the quality of vocational pedagogy is surely a sine qua non for improving our system of vocational education?
• Be wary of loans. Extending loans to 19-23-year-olds may not have quite the impact the 24 plus loans have had. Similarly the reform to funding for apprenticeships looks good on paper but be ready to change tack if employers prove resistant.
• Visit as many colleges as you can. We hope to see you at Milton Keynes College for example. There is nothing like seeing things for yourself to help shape policy and thinking. This is something you already know.
• Create a data fund for colleges to access. The sector is beginning to use 'big data' in order to triangulate its lived experience with the predictive power of data to foresee the shape of future labour markets, jobs growth and opportunities for the innovative provision of new curricula. Conversely the FELTAG agenda needs to be treated with some caution. New general purpose technologies such as digitisation always take longer than people think to embed and mesh with people's actual practises and behaviours. The government response to the FELTAG report was appropriately measured.
I sincerely hope you enjoy working with such a diverse and enthusiastic sector. The talent it nurtures holds the key to the country's future success. Rebalancing the economy starts with rebalancing how we see ourselves. As the Chancellor desires, to see 'the march of the makers' requires us to value those who will make things in the future.
Enjoy your time as Skills Minister and do come visit.
Nick Isles, Deputy Principal, Milton Keynes College
Follow Nick on Twitter at @dpmkcollege