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Sir Michael Barber: UK has been lagging on skills and apprenticeships for decades

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The government’s chief adviser on skills policy delivery, Sir Michael Barber, has said that while the UK has been lagging on skills and apprenticeships for decades, particularly compared to leading countries such as Germany and Singapore, it now has an opportunity to accelerate economic growth through skills upgrades. 

In an interview with the CEO of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), Ann Francke, to mark National Apprenticeship Week, the former Head of the Number 10 Delivery Unit and Chair of the Office for Students said:

“Britain hasn’t done terribly well on skills and apprenticeships compared to, say, Germany or Singapore, or other celebrated international examples.”

The comments come as the UK struggles to close critical skills gaps across the economy.  The Open University’s 2023 Business Barometer finds that 73% of organisations currently grapple with skills shortages, with OECD research showing that by age 25, the UK has a greater proportion of low skills compared with other OECD countries.

Sir Michael shared his thoughts on the value to the economy and the individuals of degree-level apprenticeships and their approach to work.

“I’ve met those degree apprentices,” he says. “They’re fired up. They’re getting a really good degree…they’re getting paid, they’re not generating any student debt, they’ve got a career.”

Research from the Chartered Management Institute finds that 83% of UK managers say that apprenticeships are beneficial for upskilling employees, and 86% agree that apprenticeships help to build diverse workforces. 

CMI research also found that higher-level apprenticeships support social mobility, enabling people who have missed out on – or been denied –  a chance at higher education to regain access. For example, CMI data shows that three in five level 7 senior leader apprentices come from the 50% most deprived areas in the UK.

Despite the UK’s persistent skills gaps, Sir Michael went on to say he was hopeful for the future, saying that “for the first time in British history, [the UK has] a Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Education, and a Minister of State for Higher Education and Skills, that prioritise skills above other parts of education”. 

In an election year, Sir Michael said,

“I hope that whatever happens in the 2024 election, that the Government that comes will continue this because if we keep on this path, we will become one of the best providers of skills anywhere in the world.”

With limited financial headroom in the economy, he called on political leaders to look closely at skills to improve public services. “There’s a real demand for improved public services, whether it’s health or education or reduced crime, or skills…at a time of high public debt. And yet, people don’t want to pay more in tax for those things.” Barber said it was crucial that any Government investment “deepen the skills and the capacity of [our] system… and [set us up] for longer-term delivery.”

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