Why the pursuit of excellence is key to skills

There is too much focus on achieving competence in skills development and not enough on ambition, writes Martin McGuire
10th December 2020, 6:00pm
Martin McGuire


Why the pursuit of excellence is key to skills

There Is Not Enough Focus On Excellence & Ambition In Skills, Says Martin Mcguire, Of Worldskills

The response from business leaders to CBI Scotland and KPMG's latest annual productivity index report has been clear and consistent. We need to increase efforts to boost lagging productivity rates to unlock Scotland's economic potential, as we focus on recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

The report painted a bleak picture, with 10 out of 15 key indicators showing Scotland falling behind other parts of the UK or international competitors. This was compared with nine out of 15 in last year's report. We know that long before the pandemic hit, tackling productivity challenges has been a long-term ambition for the Scottish government. Now that we are faced with the ongoing issues caused by Covid, the need to improve productivity levels and to innovate to retain and attract foreign direct investment has become even more crucial. And with that, we can't ignore the role that FE colleges and independent training providers must play in helping to solve the productivity puzzle.

More: Why Scotland needs to engage more with WorldSkills

Apprenticeships: Government pledges business support

Background: FE 'must have symbiotic relationship with businesses'

Among the recommendations put forward to both the Scottish government and individual businesses by CBI Scotland and KPMG is the need to identify upskilling opportunities for employees, giving special consideration to digital skills, and engaging with and supporting government schemes to help young people find opportunities to build their future careers. While I agree in principle with all of these, the recommendations do not go far enough in looking at the need to deliver the high-quality standard of skills that employers and investors need.

Undervaluing apprenticeships and technical education

Currently, there is too much focus on achieving levels of competence in skills development. This lack of ambition feeds the long-term undervaluing of apprenticeships and technical education as routes to success for young people. This needs to be addressed and we need to set a new level of ambition with our sights set firmly on excellence as the standard that young people and employers should expect from technical training and education. This has been highlighted in both the Cumberford-Little and Higgins reports, and now is the time to start looking beyond the immediate challenges and proudly champion higher quality at all levels in training standards.

Focusing on excellence should be tightly aligned to future economic strategies in Scotland. We know this is something that the FE sector in Scotland is keen to embrace. This was demonstrated by the high level of interest from colleges to be part of the new WorldSkills UK Centre of Excellence, in partnership with NCFE. The centre will utilise international benchmarking insights to help boost standards of training to world-class levels to help better meet employer needs. The value of aligning this approach to skills development with Scottish trade and investment priorities was set out by Roger Mullin in his recent independent report Scotland and WorldSkills: Opportunities and Challenges.

Raising skills standards and productivity

Further, CBI Scotland has placed a specific focus on the development of skills and points to the potential mismatch between workers' educational qualifications and the skills sought by business. Yet our recent report Answering the call for digital skills excellence from international investors shows that developing digital skills to higher standards is a particular focus for colleges in Scotland. So, we have to challenge the mismatch between demand and supply and champion alignment with the quality of digital skills being developed to meet employers' needs and help attract further inward investment to boost innovation and productivity.     

We are no longer able to solely rely on importing labour to meet high-quality skills needs,. Our skills system needs to step up to meet the demand for higher quality standards. We can do this by benchmarking internationally against key global economies and embedding insights into how we teach and train young people and existing workforces across Scotland.  Excellence matters and for other countries, it goes hand in hand as a source of competitive advantage and pride. We need to ensure the same in Scotland - and it will help solve our productivity puzzle, too.  

Martin McGuire is director for Scotland at WorldSkills UK and former principal of New College Lanarkshire

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