From education to employment

Lord Blunkett’s Learning and Skills Report demands “revolution” in learning and skills to boost sustainable economic growth

lord blunkett report

A new report by Labour’s council of skills advisers led by the former Education and Employment Secretary Lord David Blunkett has laid out recommendations for a “revolution” in learning and skills to achieve sustainable economic growth.

The Learning and Skills Report demands an immediate response from the Government to deal with the economic crisis and the critical need to invest in growth and productivity, and to rebalance the economy.

Recommendations include:

  • A new National Skills Taskforce, to include all key stakeholders
  • A complete shake-up of the career service
  • A new Apprenticeship and Learning Levy with flexibility demanded by business to meet the immediate challenges of up-skilling the nation
  • Decision making and investment devolved to regional and sub-regional levels; and
  • Public-private collaboration to drive up standards of digital skills

The Report sets out 24 key recommendations that could help to meet the skills challenges of the future, create a culture of lifelong learning, and promote growth and economic recovery under a Labour Government, including the delivery of major green infrastructure projects.  

The Report also lays bare how underinvestment in skills has led to economic decline under the Conservatives, characterised by regional disparities in productivity, inequalities in learning and up-skilling and a labour market in which low earnings and poor career progression have become the norm.

In response, the report recommends that immediate action be taken to deal with the crisis in skills and unprecedented unfilled vacancies.

The report also argues that establishing a pathway for restoring growth and dramatically reducing inflation cannot be achieved without a transformation in the availability of a skilled workforce, with the adaptability and creativity to embrace technological change.

Commenting on the Report, Lord Blunkett said:

“This independent report seeks to initiate a rational public debate about the part that everyone can play in contributing to success: government, centrally and locally; further and higher education institutions, the business community, and individuals in their own lives. 

“Critically, to put education and training back at the centre of government thinking, and prioritisation.

“What the report spells out today is nothing short of a revolution in meeting the skills needs of the nation.

“It addresses the immediate pressures of the moment, but it also offers a social democratic solution to the challenges of the future, including the rapidly increasing impact of artificial intelligence and robotics, re-equipping the nation for the economy of tomorrow.

“This comprehensive analysis of what is currently wrong with the approach to learning and skills for economic recovery, along with detailed consultation, has led to a whole series of proposals laid out in the report, which, if adopted by an incoming Labour government, could transform Britain’s competitiveness, productivity, and therefore the chance of sustainable growth.”

Watch our interview with Lord Blunkett here.

Sector Response

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“Schools and colleges will find much to welcome in the report. It is right to prioritise the early years, right to call for a different approach to curriculum and assessment and right to understand teacher development and retention are essential elements in a successful programme of reform. The report provides the basis for a serious conversation about educational change – something which we have lacked for a long time”.

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“This report helpfully takes a whole system approach to how a new Labour government might promote a stronger lifelong learning culture in our country, by working to support people at all ages, across their whole lives.

“The commissioners underline the essential role colleges play in delivering education and training for communities up and down the country. Investment in skills generates growth and boosts productivity while filling vacancies in the labour market and reducing inequality.

“As people live longer and the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates workforce changes the need for ongoing retraining only increases. Creating a culture of lifelong learning, with investment from government, employers and wider society, is therefore vital to invigorate the economy and to increase mental wellbeing.

“Colleges are at the centre of efforts to green the economy, to transition to net zero and to achieve sustainable growth. Recognising this is an important step to unlocking whole new sectors across vast swathes of the country which for too long have faced the spectre of industrial decline.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘The Conservative Government has been a disaster for further education, and has failed to properly use the expertise of college lecturers to upskill England. This report shows Labour understands the transformative potential of further education, both for students and for local communities. The reintroduction of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, scrapped by the Tories, will be a vital lifeline for working class young people and allow them to get good qualifications and good jobs.

‘Likewise, including representatives from trade unions and further education on Labour’s National Skills Taskforce will help ensure those who understand education and the world of work best will be able to ensure every community in England has access to good quality education and good quality jobs. Our members are experts in the local communities and students they serve, their voices will be crucial in upskilling the country. However, care should be taken to ensure that that the composition of the taskforce does not enable the voice of business to disenfranchise the interests of local communities and their elected representatives.’

Anthony Painter, Director of Policy, CMI, said:

“Labour’s Skills Council has come up with some thoughtful and systemic responses to the urgent national priority of spreading skills to support opportunity for all. People and businesses need better support. Small businesses in particular require encouragement to invest in their workforce and regions deserve a bigger say in how to meet their skills needs in the future.

“A skills revolution at all ages and all levels is what it will take to create the dynamic economy and cherished public services of the future. We would urge caution about any reform to the apprenticeship system that blocks off routes to progression to higher levels and across all ages. We also need to be careful of reforms to the apprenticeship levy that enable the biggest businesses to consume more of a finite funding pot. That would push against the logic of upskilling and reskilling the workforce of today – and tomorrow – whilst spreading opportunity wider. The focus should be to spread funds even further. 

“We very much look forward to continuing this conversation with both Labour and the current Government.”

Muniya Barua, Deputy Chief Executive at BusinessLDN, said: 

“With skills shortages rife across the economy, Labour has put forward a package of measures which will tick many boxes for businesses – from the focus on lifelong learning to devolving more funding and decision making powers to regions so they can target spending where it’s needed. 

“A trained careers leader in every school will go a long way to addressing the lack of high-quality advice available to young people, but in the capital what’s really needed is a London-wide service to get people of all ages into the jobs that businesses are creating. 

“Labour is right to recognise that the apprenticeship levy doesn’t work as well as it could and to allow firms to transfer more of their funds to smaller businesses. It should go further by allowing employers to use some of their levy on pre-employment training and towards the wage costs of new apprentices from priority groups.” 

In the autumn of 2021 Keir Starmer asked Lord Blunkett to chair a council of skills advisers, which included Praful Nargund, an award-wining entrepreneur; Kevin Rowan of the TUC, and Rachel Sandby-Thomas, currently Registrar of Warwick University and former Director General of Skills at the then Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and was wide-ranging in taking evidence, advice and analysis.

The report was envisaged to reach out to the network of those involved in the development of skills and lifelong learning – in business, the trade unions, public service and academia – in order to put together an ambitious but practical set of proposals which would meet both the short-term skills gap and the longer-term challenges of major innovative change in the workplace.

As spelt out in Lord Blunkett’s foreword, the recommendations will be presented to the Labour Party’s Policy Forum process over the winter, as well as seeking to generate wider public debate.

The Report makes a series of key recommendations (A full list can be found in Appendix 1):

  • Establishing a National Skills Taskforce is critical to success
  • Decision making and spending should be decentralised and devolved to regional and sub-regional level wherever possible
  • Collaboration between state and private sectors to raise the standards and acquisition of digital skills at every level is fundamental to preparation for the economy of the future
  • A complete shakeup of the career service, from school through to adult careers guidance
  • A reform of public procurement guidance to ensure contracts include mandatory clauses relating to up-skilling
  • Transformation of employers’ investment in skills by reforming the current Apprenticeship Levy into an “Apprenticeship and Learning Levy” which will maximise the use of this resource and rebalance the current direction of spend; in particular towards support for entry level and 16–25-year-olds and innovative, modern technological challenges
  • Improve support and incentives to SMEs to take on apprentices, including the acceleration of “shared apprenticeships” with larger employers, and consideration of a Skills Tax Credit
  • The development of Individual Learning Accounts, which would share the cost of learning between the individual, the employer and the state
  • A Learning and Skills “passport” based on appropriate assessment and/or examination in order to build, incrementally, a profile that could be added to at any time and in a variety of ways, throughout life
  • Access to Work from the DWP (available for people with disabilities and their employers) should be made much more flexible and person-centred. For those eligible, it should be available for substantial volunteering, undertaking training, trialling work placements, and must be planned in a timely fashion before the individual takes up the offered work opportunity
  • The restoration of the original objectives of the Sure Start programme and the development of a comprehensive system – from the end of maternity leave through to the end of primary school- which enables parents, especially women, to access the jobs with flexibility to meet their needs
  • A broad-based National Curriculum Authority, or Agency, should be established which draws in broad expertise for reshaping the curriculum, rethinking assessment and providing a modernised syllabus which is free from party political interference
  • Providing teachers with ongoing support to improve retention and invest in their continuing professional development and understanding of careers opportunities. This should include the gradual introduction of sabbaticals for teachers for every five years of service
  • A reformed National Tutoring Programme should be embedded as a permanent feature to allow all young people to access tutoring services on equal terms with those whose families can afford to purchase support
  • The reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16–19-year-olds, including support for those undertaking apprenticeships in the same age group
  • A new Right to Retrain which would expand, and make more flexible, entitlements for adults for free access to courses from an approved provider, opening-up progression pathways for many adults to higher level qualifications

Appendix – Report Highlights: Falling Investment in Skills and Adult Learning

Decline in state investment:

  • Funding for adults attending college courses halved in the last decade to £1.5 billion and take-up has nearly halved
  • New spending on adult skills from the National Skills Fund will only reverse one third of this reduction
  • During 2018–19, 490,300 learners participated in Adult Education Budget funded community learning in England. A decline of 25% since 2011–12.

Decline in employer investment

  • The two groups experiencing the largest cuts from 2011-18 were workers with qualifications below GCSEs/vocational equivalent, which were down by 20%; and workers aged 16-34 – down by 15%
  • the proportion of training that was off-the-job was 53%, compared to 58% in 2011
  • the proportion of training involving shorter training durations (less than a week), was 56%, compared to 49% in 2011
  • the proportion of workplace training certified to nationally recognised qualifications was 18%, compared to 22% in 2011

Certain groups are being hit much harder. Some of the key findings include:

  • Employer investment in training fell sharply during the pandemic, with low wage workers and young people most likely to be adversely affected (e.g. young workers aged 16-24 working in the private sector saw the largest falls in training)
  • Graduates are four times more likely to have undertaken training compared to workers with no qualifications
  • The total number of days spent training at work is at its lowest level since 2011. There would be an additional 20 million training days delivered if employer-led training had remained at 2011 levels
  • Employer investment annually per employee is £1,530 – half the EU average
  • There would be an additional£6.2billion spent by employers per annum if investment per employee rose to the EU average

Source: Learning and Skills for Economic Recovery, Social Cohesion and a More Equal Britain (2022). pp.16. – 19.

Conservative Skills Policy Failures

  • Apprenticeship starts have declined by almost 200,000 over the last decade, with the greatest falls among young people and people on low incomes


  • 61% of businesses in the UK currently believe they have a skills shortage in their organisation and they spend an estimated £6.1 billion annually on inflated salaries, recruitment fees and temporary staff in order to address these shortages.

Source: The Edge Foundation, Skills Shortages in the UK Economy: Evidence Summary 2022 (London: The Edge Foundation, 2022)

  • 11.8 million people lack digital skills deemed essential to the workplace


  • Under the Tories there has also been a huge fall in employer investment in skills, meaning investment with UK employers ranked 27th of 35 comparable countries for skills investment on the latest comparable data.

Source: Li, J. et al (2020) Trends in job-related training and policies for building future skills into the recovery, Centre for Vocational Education Research, LSE

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