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5 problems the next skills minister can't afford to ignore

Anne Milton’s certainly got a great job, writes Stephen Evans, CEO of the Learning and Work Institute. But she has an awful lot to do

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Anne Milton’s certainly got a great job, writes Stephen Evans, CEO of the Learning and Work Institute. But she has an awful lot to do

New skills minister Anne Milton (assuming she is finally officially confirmed in the role) has a great and important job. The popular previous minister, Robert Halfon, can attest to that and leaves his successor with a hard act to follow.

It's a great job because she'll get to work with an amazing sector that makes a difference every day and meet some amazing learners. And it's an important job because, at its best, learning and skills is an engine of social mobility and a driver of post-Brexit prosperity. With the Queen’s Speech marking the start of a new government and Brexit negotiations starting, skills have perhaps never been more important.

But it's a tough job too. There's clearly been too much chop and change, including at ministerial level. And the election result leaves the government without a majority.

There's a chance to turn this to her advantage, though: most of the legislative reforms needed are passed, and working with others across the sector and across political divides is likely to improve policy and delivery.

So, what are likely to be the key issues the new minister will need to focus on? Here's the top five list from the Learning and Work Institute:

  1. Apprenticeships and technical education

The 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 target remains in place, with no target beyond this. The levy has been introduced and the Institute for Apprenticeships and technical education established. An early priority will be to resolve the various provider procurements that are in various states.

Ultimately, we need a range of high-quality providers and a budget guarantee for small- and medium-sized enterprises and across the economic cycle. Similarly, reforming qualifications is only the start of technical education changes – we also need to support the workforce and providers to adapt, and employers to drive the content.

  1. Skills strategy

Over recent decades we've probably had even more skills strategies than qualifications reforms. Nonetheless, it would be helpful to get a clear statement of the overall vision for skills (beyond just apprenticeships and technical education), a framework for delivery (including a vision for the provider base the government wants to see), and a plan for how learning and skills can be a golden thread running through all government policy (given, for example, the clear health and wellbeing benefits of learning).

  1. English and maths

It is not acceptable that 9 million adults have low literacy, numeracy or both. We’re making far too little progress in tackling this as country. We need a renewed national mission and for someone to grab hold of it and make it a priority.

We've argued this should mean an extra £200 million per year (make friends with the Treasury, minister), but also new ways of delivering and engaging people. (Oh, and changing the GCSE retakes policy for young people, without lowering the ambition for everyone to get the basic skills they need, would gain some early brownie points with the sector.)

  1. Lifelong learning

There are 1.5 million fewer people learning than a decade ago. We need to reverse this decline. That's about funding.

But it's also about priorities. It would be great to see a new minister making a community learning provider her first visit.

  1. Devolution

There’s a risk this runs out of steam, bogged down in details and "readiness" criteria (whether parts of central government would pass readiness tests is another matter). So an early statement that cities and local areas have a clear leadership role and that devolution of the Adult Education Budget should proceed would help drive progress.

A thought from the CEO

The truth is, it was difficult to narrow down the list to five – that's a measure of the size and importance of the job. But headline priorities and early wins are important.

Also important is the way a minister does their job, setting a clear tone. I would argue by far and away the most important thing is to communicate openly and work collaboratively.

The minister should continue where Rob Halfon left off, getting out and speaking to people, meeting learners and seeing what further education does on the ground. That includes the wider civic society and community learning, as well as colleges, providers and the opposition parties (not just the DUP).

Secondly, my experience of working in government has taught me that it's very easy to get bogged down in initiatives and process. What matters is quality and outcomes. For example, the apprenticeship programme will surely have been a failure if total employer investment and engagement in learning doesn't increase, unless it can be demonstrated that apprenticeships have better outcomes than the training they had substituted for. So being clear about outcomes, making sure the data is freely available and having an open debate about the future is key.

Being skills minister really is a great job, and it's perhaps never been more important. It's a job where the focus now is delivery of reforms, rather than introducing those reforms.

That gives a chance for our new minister to drive tangible change on the ground. To do that, she'll need to reach out to the sector. I'm sure we'll all stand ready to that.

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