How a 10-year plan could fix the skills system

Taking a more long-term view of skills policy and funding would reap rewards for the whole sector, Stephen Evans writes

Stephen Evans

A longer-term approach to skills policy and funding would be beneficial to everyone

As with clothes, policies tend to go in and out of fashion. Targets and payment by results have both gone from being all-pervading to being pushed to the back of the proverbial policy wardrobe.

There is no magic answer, but perhaps a greater focus on clear entitlements for people could help.

Last week, at the launch of Learning and Work Institute’s new Time for Action report, the chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, repeated his call for a 10-year plan for education. If the NHS has one, why not education, too?

The discussion following that has left me reflecting on what the right approach is and how to make it happen.

Read more: 'Further education isn't a cost. It's an investment'

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Background: UK ‘will drop’ in world literacy and numeracy table

Back in the 2000s, targets were all the rage. Public service agreement targets showed what funding allocated to departments in a spending review would deliver.

These included ambitions for 50 per cent of young people to participate in higher education and for the number of basic skills and level 2 qualifications that adults would gain.

Some of these targets were hit, others were missed. But by the 2010s, targets were increasingly viewed as too blunt a tool for public services.

A new coalition government highlighted them as an example of what they argued was a top-down approach by New Labour. In my view, that’s both fair and unfair.

Payment by results?

Targets on their own don’t deliver change and can distort behaviour. But if you don’t have a sense of what you’re seeking to achieve from a policy or investment, how do you know if you’ve succeeded?

For the coalition, payment by results was perhaps the “new targets”. The results were intended to be focused on outcomes, and focusing payment on these outcomes was intended to give providers greater incentives to deliver.

Again, this was both right and wrong. Payment by results has its place, particularly where we have a clearer sense of what works.

This was the case for support for people who are short-term unemployed under the work programme – the evidence base was relatively sound, there was a provider base that had developed experienced delivering this service, and so results were better and taxpayer costs lower compared with previous programmes.

Focus on basic and intermediate skills

But there are some fields where payment by results is not appropriate, particularly where the evidence base on “what works” is not strong or where there are complex drivers of these outcomes.

It is clear that this approach has not worked in the privatisation of part of the probation service, where many providers are struggling and one has gone out of business.

It was problematic, too, in helping disabled people into work through the work programme – faced by lower success than they planned for, many providers responded by cutting costs to match their income rather than investing more to boost their results and therefore income.

Where does this leave us? I think setting out a national strategy and ambitions for learning and skills is important. Our report suggested this should focus particularly on basic skills and intermediate skills. If you don’t set ambitions up front, you end up with them implicit in the policies you introduce anyway. So you should think about it at the start.

A longer-term plan is needed

We do also need a longer-term approach and more policy and funding stability. The constant chop and change we’ve seen in England over generations has not helped anybody.

That stability is difficult to achieve in these extraordinary political times, given how tight the public finances are (meaning the Treasury wants to claw back any underspends within the year) and given the long-term now means until the end of the week.

But we should think about whether there are lessons to be learned from how a broad consensus has been forged around the need for longer-term planning in health and pensions, even if there’s an ongoing debate about what those plans should be.

Finally, mechanisms like targets and payment by results have their place, but they are not magic bullets. We need, I think, a greater focus on who the ultimate customers of a public service are (in this case, individuals and employers).

A lifelong learning entitlement 

That’s why the Learning and Work Institute supports the apprenticeship levy, but we think it needs tweaking – the levy rules should set a framework, within which employers then make choices.

It’s why we also support the introduction of personal learning accounts, again creating a framework and targeting investment on those who need it most, but letting people make choices within this framework.

I also think clearer entitlements for individuals – what you can expect and when – would help. That should be both an expansion of entitlements to learn and greater clarity on what they mean. Most people don’t know what a level 2 or 3 is, so can we frame things instead as a lifelong learning entitlement?

We’re not short of reports telling us we have a learning and skills problem. That problem’s not new either. What we need now is to build a clearer consensus on how to fix it.

Stephen Evans is the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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