'Let's abandon impulsive skills policies in favour of evidence.'

31st January 2014 at 18:15


Jane Scott Paul OBE, chief executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians, writes: 

I spoke openly about what I believe excellence to look like when developing qualifications and skills from my own experience as Chief Executive of AAT at the Skills Summit this week.

I’ve been chief executive of the AAT for 17 years and before that headed up its education and qualifications function. Over a period of a quarter of a century, we, as a professional membership body and qualification provider have had to change our qualification requirements in skills policy landscape which is in a constant state of flux.

I have regarded it as my job to navigate through successive fads and fashions in a way that minimises negative impact on my stakeholders. No easy task - especially when qualification requirements change at the whim of politicians and policy makers.

These changes come at high cost for taxpayers and for awarding bodies which have to alter, systems, qualifications, structures and content as a result.

Employers want and have a right to demand, quality-assured qualifications that deliver skills and competencies relevant to their workplace that is all that matters. Quite rightly all the learner needs to know is that they are embarking on a gold star qualification which gives them the skills wanted, valued and demanded by employers. Skills development sits at the heart of our business.

The AAT has been successful because our qualifications have been developed from a core set of employer led standards that deliver uniform, rigorous qualifications for all learners irrespective of age and mode of study.

Over 33 years we have changed people’s lives through skills development - not because of successive public policy initiatives - but despite them. A skills system that should be simple to navigate is unnecessarily complex and confusing.

AAT receives no subsidies or grants, we funded entirely by the fees and subscriptions of our members and and so if we don’t make their investment worthwhile, we would cease to exist.

The Richard Review, 16 – 19 Vocational Qualification Reforms and the Whitehead Review of Adult Vocational education all draw to similar conclusions that that qualification development must be employer led.

AAT is in the business of providing high quality vocational qualifications and skills that are demanded by employers and lead to worthwhile and rewarding jobs and lifelong career development. We can do it as a professional body. So why, despite well-meaning efforts, by successive governments and policy makers do we, as a country, make such a mess of it. NEETs are hovering around 1 million– it is a dismal record.

Politicians and policy makers can’t resist tampering. Thinking about employer engagement I have worked with a lead body for accounting, a TEC, a national training organisation and a sector skills council - all doing roughly the same thing.

But for some reason we think if we shuffle the chairs every few years it will be beneficial. Meanwhile the professsional bodies in accounting are not regarded as having anything to contribute in the regulated qualification world despite decades if not centuries of standard setting and employer engagement.

When last year, just as it was about to be abolished, the SASE for Higher Apprenticeships was revised to increase the minimum number of credits we asked a cross section of our employers if they knew how many credits were in an AAT qualification?

Not one had any idea and nor did it matter to them. Not surprisingly employers are disengaged as their views are very often disregarded. And as Leitch observed in 2006 most employer investment in skills and training takes place outside the publicly funded system.

Let’s stop policy making that stems from the impulse to make things neat and tidy. What works for one sector may not work for another – accountants may need to do things differently from animators, retailers or computer engineers, does that matter? No? Do we care? No.

Instead, let us make skills policy based on evidence. Let’s try and find out what works before we roll out nationwide initiatives

Let’s remind ourselves that the politicians broadly agree about the fundamentals of skills development and let’s try and stop new governments dismantling what has gone before for the sake of looking as different as possible from their predecessors.

Let’s rethink funding understandably training providers will do what brings in funding but this is not always consistent with delivering the skills business needs.

Dare we have a moratorium on new policy and funding initiatives and see whether we can’t do better just by muddling through?

As we go through yet another tedious and energy sapping round of reform, wouldn’t it be great if we had enough confidence to allow qualifications to develop and grow on the basis that they enhance opportunity, and because they are genuinely valued by employers and let funding and regulation be subordinate to that.


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