Boris Johnson’s new-look government has an exciting opportunity to reform education in ways that help business deal with the alarming skills gap in the UK. This gap will only get bigger post-Brexit in many sectors. We need the new cabinet to act now and put the “Great” back into “British industry”.
The former prime minister and skills minister’s advice to their replacements was clear: the new regime must repair further education. It has to reverse previous governments’ drives for more young people to go to university. UK business needs more people with vocational skills and who are ready for the workplace.
Background: Williamson to personally take on skills remit
Most sectors of the UK economy are forecasting, or already experiencing, a skills shortage. Yet numbers of apprenticeships are currently at a fraction of the levels they were 50 years ago and continuing to fall. Apprenticeships in technical skills and at lower skill levels, which workplaces desperately need, are at particularly critical levels.
With near record proportions of school leavers expected to be admitted to universities again this September, the government must not forget that three-quarters of 18-year-olds won’t be going to university. They deserve training that will lead to rewarding careers and the skills that British business is crying out for.
The review of post-18 education, published by Philip Augar on 30 May 2019, provides many of the clues the education secretary and Department for Education ministers need to reform the education system.
Last year, over half of the 5% Club members struggled to find quality vocational training in areas of the country where they needed it. Yet employment opportunities provide a way out of disadvantage in so many parts of the country. These are often areas where industry has declined, experienced and young talent is left languishing, and new industries need to be encouraged.
The prime minister Boris Johnson is right to commit new funding to re-skilling workers so they are a better fit for new roles and industries, operating in a digital age. But he must also commit new funding to quality "earn and learn" training for Britain’s younger generations entering the workforce.
New education secretary Gavin Williamson must review further education colleges and providers to ensure they coordinate their offerings, with each other and with local employers, so that the right skills are being offered in the right locations.
The government must invest to improve the quality of training. Stability of funding and rules will help providers to offer better quality skills training. Businesses can help the government to identify the training that is of most value to them and needs investment.
The government must urgently reform the apprenticeship levy to allow employers to use it for a broader range of quality training, which they need to sustain and grow their business.
It is imperative that this government reforms this British education system and those within it. Now is the time for school leavers and their parents to see apprenticeships as an excellent and exciting career choice. The change in perception of earning and learning as a route to great opportunities, quicker progression and even higher earnings needs to happen more quickly.
Schools need to give pupils more access to employers, and present comprehensive and balanced careers advice. As the Augar Review recommends, training for careers advisers and a roll-out of the national careers strategy will help to kick start this education revolution.
Over the last decade, the number of apprenticeships has fallen to critically low levels. Boris Johnson and his team have a vital opportunity – and a vital need – to restore "earn and learn" training to the levels of the 1960s. Before the start of the decline, apprenticeships were the norm in skilling up Britain’s workforce; they were coveted as a career path, and business was booming.
Post-Brexit Britain urgently needs new and different skills. We need to go back to a long-established way of training in order to move forward, and for our businesses, workers and economy to prosper. Decisive and immediate action is needed by the new prime minister to help British business survive, and thrive, in the digital 2020s and beyond.
Lady Penelope Cobham CBE is director general of The 5% Club. By joining The 5% Club, businesses aspire to have 5 per cent of their workforce in ‘earn and learn’ positions (including apprenticeships) within five years