From education to employment

How Would A New National Skills Body Work in Practice?

Lesley Giles discusses a new report written by Work Advance and commissioned by the AoC which argues that the post-16 education and skills system needs a radical national skill body.


As we progress towards the general election on 4 July, the importance of a world-class education and skills system is rising up the agenda of all the political parties.

The Changing World of Work

With continuing developments in the modern world of work including advances in technology, increasing globalisation, and environmental and green transitions, there is a growing recognition that investment in lifelong learning is more crucial than ever to equip people with the skills to get in and on in work and to unlock those opportunities.

The Importance of a Strong Education and Skills System

There has been a growing recognition over recent years – across government, and across all major parties – of the importance of a strong and quality education and skills system. Indeed, there are reforms working their way through the system which seek to build a stronger system fit for the future, supporting lifelong learning for all, on a par with other leading nations.

Challenges in Reforming the System

However, with ongoing global economic, political uncertainties and labour market disruption becoming the new norm, there is evidence that reform is complex and multi-dimensional, and progress is slow. Challenges include persistent constraints on productivity growth, falling training levels, a reliance on public funding and increasing labour and skills shortages. There is a need to take stock of where the system is at, repurpose and advance further improvements with the future government.

A New National Skills Body

For the past couple of months, Work Advance has been working on a key piece of research, commissioned by the Association of Colleges, which concludes that a radical new way of operating is desperately needed: strengthening governance arrangements via a new national skills body.

Blueprint for the Skills Body

Guided by a review of the evidence base and interviews with a wide range of skills experts, the research sets out a blueprint of what this body would look like, and how it would operate, in practice. In particular, international insights from bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), drawing on international examples, point to key features and functions of, and what works in, an effective skills system, from which England can learn.

Key Features of the Skills Body

We need to start by establishing the body as a strong social partnership, which can bring multi-agency working and independence to skill governance. This is important not only to enhance stakeholder engagement centrally within the system, but to enable partnerships at different levels of government, providing a whole of government approach. This can support devolution and customisation, while bringing in the expertise of delivery partners such as colleges to co-design the best solutions and most relevant skills programmes.

Strategic Functions of the Skills Body

The OECD highlights some key strategic functions in well-running systems that need to be strengthened in England and the skills body should fully embrace: first promoting strategic co-ordination and collaboration across levels of government and through devolved regional/ local structures; second, leading a programme of skills research, labour market analysis and evaluation to understand current and future employment and skills needs to drive action and consistently measure skills outcomes; and third, establishing a cycle for strategy development and skills planning to set long term priorities for action nationally, regionally and sectorally.

Operational Functions of the Skills Body

From its strategic vantage point, the new skills body would also be able to influence operational functions working on specific skills commissions in partnership with wider agencies: to enhance employer and individual engagement in the system; and/or enable greater flexibility for providers.

The Value of the Skills Body

Taken together the skills body would work to provide independent oversight and evidence-based advice to the UK government, and the wider system, and to add value to the system by supporting policy innovation, reducing duplication and bureaucracy and addressing persistent implementation challenges and market failures.


Getting this right will take some commitment and will not be achieved overnight. We need to strengthen effective working across government, with key agencies, with employers and across the sector, and ensure that the new body gives clarity, direction and coherence to the system, rather than adding new layers of complexity. The prize, however, is immense. It has the potential to ensure that we have an education and skills system that is able to rise to the key challenges and changes we face, opening up opportunities to all, driving forward the green transition, boosting productivity and tackling endemic social and regional inequalities.

By Lesley Giles, Director of Work Advance, a research and analysis organisation, and former Deputy Director at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

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