We always talk about the need to raise awareness of FE; to change perceptions and be held up alongside academia. However all too often, we just see change. New policies here and there, skills and employment policy switching between Government departments, new ministers at every reshuffle.
Ok, there are the headlines accompanying this, which brings skills education into the public eye. But is it for the right reasons? I'm not so sure.
City & Guilds recently reviewed skills and employment policies and governance over the past three decades. We also spoke to key people that work within the industry to gather their insight.
The result was our new report, 'Sense & Instability: three decades of skills and employment policy.' It highlighted some scary statistics. There have been 61 Secretaries for State overseeing skills, education and training in three decades. This key policy area has switched between departments no less than ten times in the same amount of time.
But it's not just about the big figures.
This has had a significant, long-term impact on skills development in the UK. Given we always hear about the importance of tackling skills gaps, it's a huge cause for concern. Skills policy should not be a political football.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Take the academic system for example, which has had its fair share of curriculum change, that's for sure. But ultimately, the structure and the qualifications themselves haven't changed much at all. Whereas for vocational qualifications specifically, we saw the introduction of NVQs in 1986, followed by GNVQs six years later, which then became ACVEs and Applied GCSEs – all before being phased out in 2007. Easy to follow? I don't think so.
Apprenticeships have also always been a key feature of skills policy and therefore the subject of frequent reports and recommendations – from the Youth Training Scheme in the early 80s, to Modern Apprenticeships in 1994, to the more recent changes following the Richard and Whitehead Review. So much change, so many recommendations and ideas, but no long-standing legacy.
And we also keep seeing the same themes over and over again. In 1984, the Institute of Manpower Studies suggested that effective employer engagement policy should focus on encouraging investment in training. In 2001, the Dearing review talked about there being a lack of employee ownership around apprenticeships. And today of course, employer engagement is at the heart of the recent apprenticeship reforms. I hate to be the pessimist, but if drives to engage employers haven't worked before, why will they work now?
So what's the solution?
What we need is stability, consistency, and the ability to learn from our mistakes. Too much change and political one-upmanship de-values the skills system. If we ever want the FE system to garner the same recognition as academia, the Government needs to get out of the habit of change for change's sake and focus on what could make a lasting difference.
That's why we've set out three recommendations:
1. Develop a new, independent body – similar to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility – to guarantee that policy and funding decisions are based on robust evidence.
2. Maintain the current networks of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) for at least one Parliament. They should also be established on a statutory basis so they are more accountable and empowered to deliver.
3. The BIS Select Committee should conduct an inquiry into the skills and employment system to inform the next administration's approach to skills.
These recommendations will make sure we're truly making steps forward – rather than one step forward, two steps back. Our report is just the beginning. We hope it'll start a discussion that leads to long-term improvements and – more importantly – a stronger, more stable system. Because the bottom line is, if we don't stop now, we risk another three decades of going around in circles.
Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of City & Guilds Group, a global leader in skills development