Professional and technical skills reform – will it be a revolution, a rebrand or rehash?

Written by
Chris Jones
City & Guilds Group

20 Sep 2018

20 Sep 2018 • by Chris Jones

Will the current set of education reforms really be any different to those that have gone before it? Is the skills reform a revolution, or merely a(nother) rebrand or rehash of past policy?

Last week, we hosted the final session of the Franklin Debates: a lecture series hosted in partnership with The Worshipful Company of Educators and The City University to discuss the ongoing changes to professional and technical education in the UK.

Speakers included Baroness Alison Wolf, whose seminal 'Wolf Report' instigated the current wide-ranging reforms of the Vocational Educational system and Nigel Whitehead, chief technology officer at BAE Systems. We took to the stage to discuss whether the current set of reforms is really going to be any different to those that have gone before it. Is the skills reform a revolution, or merely a(nother) rebrand or rehash of past policy?

Does the UK need a skills revolution?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a revolution is “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes or operation”.

Conditions today are certainly ripe for a revolution. We’re witnessing growing skills gaps – which are likely to be exacerbated by Brexit; UK productivity levels are worryingly low, lagging well behind those of our European and G7 counterparts and we are seeing skills mismatches, meaning many are underemployed.

Plus, a stimulus is needed to enable a greater investment into employer provided training as only Greece, Romania and Poland spend less than UK on workforce development.

Yet attitudes seemingly are hard to shift. Despite the increased profile of Apprenticeships and importantly degree level Apprenticeships, UCAS reported that the proportion of English 18 year-olds applying to University has increased to the highest on record.

Today we are still a nation which prides university education above all else. Following the Blair government’s ambition to get 50% of young people into university, we are now left with a supply of skills totally unbalanced with the market needs.

Research that City & Guilds carried out with economic modellers Emsi found that only 30% of jobs to 2022 were predicted to be graduate level, so that's quite a significant number of young people spending in excess of £50k on an education that most likely isn't going to get them the career they were hoping for.

While academic education is of course still extremely important, it certainly isn't the be-all-and-end-all. Government needs to work hard now to promote the value of professional and technical education to parents, teachers young people and even employers, and we can start doing that by more clearly linking training to market demand.

Operations, too, are ready for change. Over the last 30 years, the UK Government has seen 67 different Secretaries of State responsible for skills and employment policy, leaving a fragmented and disjointed system - which is not really fit-for-purpose.

Despite the good intentions of the changes that have been put into place, challenges remain in the implementation. A year after its introduction, just 8% of the apprenticeship levy funds have been spent, with £1.28 billion sitting in unused accounts. Why this has happened is currently a matter of debate. Is it just early days? Are employers still in the dark about how the levy could benefit their business? Is the system too complex? Or does it need to become a more flexible skills levy, giving employers more control over how their money is spent?

In addition to the teething problems of the levy, there are fears that the Further Education system is critically underfunded and that the reforms of the T-Levels in particular are in danger of falling flat as a result, much like the ill-fated 14-19 Diplomas.

A report by the Resolution Foundation published in late April that stated that moving to a high quality educational route such as T-Levels will require well-funded and resourced educational establishments to deliver them. They suggest that at a minimum, FE funding should be brought back to the level of 2011-12. To do so today would cost roughly £765 million in current prices.

Additionally, there are widespread concerns that the four-month work placement element will be extremely difficult for employers to deliver without some sort of financial incentive and programme of support and guidance from Government.

So, while we may hope for a revolution, there are certainly some significant barriers we need to overcome if we are to get there.

Matching skills supply and demand

The Apprenticeship Levy has brought vocational training back up both the news and skills agendas. And a successful introduction of T-Levels is critical in taking us one step closer to reaching parity of esteem.

So what about the £1.2bn of unspent levy funds? How could we ensure that employers use those? We need to consider some new ideas as it would be a travesty if the funding collected wasn't used to upskill the UK workforce as it was intended.

At last week's lecture, Nigel Whitehead, chief technology officer at BAE Systems, touched on the idea of skills flooding. A process by which larger businesses, in industries which struggle to recruit from the current talent pool, deliberately over train in volume to create their own talent pool, which they then share the skilled workers they have trained with their supply chain.

This is a win-win as it means that large employers have quality built in across the whole of the manufacture process. BAE Systems alone takes on 600 apprentices every year, meaning at any one time they have up to 2,000 apprentices on their books.

This is just one example of an organisation placing learning at its core, using training programmes to develop the skilled workforce it needs to fuel business – and industry – growth.

Can we make it happen?

Despite the apparent doom and gloom, I’m optimistic that we can make this skills reform a revolution, as long as everyone gets behind it. The core ingredients are all there and we’re a nation with a clear appetite for change.

There’s a significant job to be done in shifting the focus both onto the value of technical education and the importance of quality training.

According to the Institute for Apprenticeships, approximately 500,000 apprenticeships are started every year in the UK but less than half are completed. The issue is clearly around effectiveness, rather than volume, and we must take steps to tackle this. Allowing unproven providers to enter the apprenticeship delivery market for example cannot be good for the brand nor the quality of training delivered - a first step could be to tackle this issue.

Ultimately, though success will be achieved by employers, government and education providers working hand in hand to create a force for good.

By building a stable, quality-driven education framework, which gives parity of esteem to technical and vocational training, and embeds employers from the offset, we have the power to make a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes and operation. The alternatives just don't bear thinking about.

City & Guilds Group