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'The national skills strategy is a disaster'



Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, writes:

The recent Office for National Statistics report showing the productivity gap between Britain and the USA, France and Germany is now more than 30 percent is only the latest evidence that our national skills strategy is a disaster. 

The first and fundamental mistake, at the heart of skills policy since 2003, was to teach industry that training staff is something the state pays for.  This was, initially, the product of the Treasury inspired Train to Gain programme, which rewarded employers financially for certifying workers for skills they already possessed. 

It was a truly bizarre initiative.  Both Tesco and the Army were persuaded to take public money from the training ministry (the names of the relevant Department of State ministry changed every year or two) for training that they were already doing, just so the ministry could demonstrate to the Treasury that it was hitting its targets.  And this flagrant abuse of the public purse was funded by cutting further education courses for adults who were keen to learn new skills in their own time at colleges.

In vain we argued for co-financing by employers, with a reducing state share.  In vain we complained about dead weight; indeed, I was told by the senior civil servant responsible that the Treasury was relaxed about the 90 percent dead weight (displacement of private investment by public finance).

Once the scheme was eventually wound up, in the wake of the 2008 bankers’ crisis, it was perhaps unsurprising to find that many small and medium sized businesses had got out of the habit of investing in the development of their own staff. 

And government went on to repeat the mistake, at least in the initial phases of the apprentices programme, where employers were once again able to take public money for certificating adult staff without necessarily adding to their skills.

The second major mistake made in our skills policy has been to focus public investment increasingly narrowly on securing more formal certification. 

Ever since the CBI-inspired National Education and Training Targets of 1988, we have been hell bent on improving the qualifications of the workforce, as the key route to productivity improvement. 

At first sight this seems to make sense.  There is after all only a limited amount of money available for investment in skills.  Far better, then, to concentrate it on supporting studies that relate directly to workplace skills, or so you would think. 

Over the 26 years since we first adopted national targets focused on formal qualifications, there have been impressive gains in the numbers of adults in the workforce with qualifications.

At the same time, a national curriculum has been introduced in schools, and children are subject to a regime of intensive testing, backed by external inspection, public league tables of qualifications gained, and endless new initiatives to strengthen literacy and numeracy.

But as the latest OECD study of adult skills (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2013) showed, England is unique in OECD countries in having 15-24-year-olds with no more skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving than its 55-64-year-olds.  And whatever comfort we offer ourselves for the qualifications gained, when adults’ actual skills in these areas are measured we languish in the OECD league tables mid-twenties of the 30 countries studied.

This latest evidence is confirmation of a key finding of the national Skills for Life survey of adult literacy and numeracy skills, (DfES, 2003). It found that among the post-school population the age cohorts with the highest skills levels in both disciplines were those who had been schooled in the Plowden era – when teachers were trusted to set their own curricula, when HMI spent 80 per cent of their time on supporting development, and when there was no national curriculum, no league tables, no targets.  Curiously, that connection was not highlighted in the conclusions of the government report, but it is there for all to see.

The third weakness in the strategy is its obsession with targets.  They are of course comforting. They generate data to justify investment.  Yet as John Denham said, when he was briefly the responsible minister, ‘you can hit the target and miss the point’.  Or as Einstein put it, ‘not everything worth counting can be counted, and not everything countable counts.’

So what is to be done?  First, copy our more productive partner countries.  Leave investment in the skills of workers to the firms that employ them, but secure the public interest through licence to practice schemes as a guarantee to employers and consumers alike. 

Even the USA has twice the proportion of its workforce covered by these schemes than the UK.  Second, spend the money saved in re-creating public education opportunities for adults and invest in certificated and uncertificated courses alike. 

Third, trust teachers to get on with the job, and scrap the paraphernalia of over-testing, over-inspecting.  Copy Finland, train teachers well, give them on-going space and time for reflection and development, in schools and FE, and then trust them to do a good job.

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