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Grand designs for skills revolution

David Forrester is a college governor. He was formerly director of further education and training at the DfES.

Rumours abound as to whether Lord Leitch's skills 2020 report will call for revolution or incremental change.

Comment copy = There are plenty of current initiatives which an incremental approach could be built around. We have seen the transformation of our secondary school system into specialist schools and academies. Then there is the introduction of a system of 14 specialised diplomas for 14- to 19-year-olds. Employers are having more say through Train to Gain, with the shifting of much of the financial responsibility for FE to the employee or employer, and the revitalisation of apprenticeships and Centres of Vocational Excellence. And last month the National Skills Academy Network was launched.

Those of us who have laboured over many years to address skills shortages may welcome most of these initiatives but feel some scepticism or unease.

Will they really deliver and attract back a sufficient proportion of high-attaining young people to quell the complaints of employers that they cannot get the right kind of recruits, and to help reach the nirvana of parity of esteem? Will they provide a true ladder of excellence for lower attainers? How do they all fit together?

There may, indeed, be no grand design. However, those who are charged with putting these initiatives in place can create one. There are three current mantras that should help us: specialisation, partnership and contestability.

No institution should try to do everything. Each should specialise by subject or economic sector. For both the 14-19 specialised diplomas and the adult skills agenda, a system of specialist hubs and spokes is both desirable and inevitable.

This will require long-term partnerships between colleges, schools, work-based training providers and employers or their representatives. Those partnerships may have to override individual institutional decisions. There is an urgent need for novel governance structures such as federations or trusts, as encouraged by the new Education and Inspection Act.

This partnership approach could stifle innovation and threaten quality.

Hence the renewed interest in competition. This principle, embodied in the Learning and Skills Act 2000, shows signs at last of happening.

It offers the possibility of new forms of collaboration, as in the National Skills Academies. But it has been resisted by some in FE colleges. That is not the way to meet the challenges of the Leitch Report. The new skills revolution can only be built around strong colleges.

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