Now is the time for re-skilling, not upskilling

It often takes a crisis to sort the cool heads from the rest. And the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, under the chairmanship of Phil Willis, is to be congratulated this week for delivering a dose of sanity in what seems an increasingly mad world (page 1).

The select committee's call for radical reform of Train to Gain is welcome and timely. The trouble with the scheme is that it depends on horses following carts or, in this case, employers following the training.

Understandably, employer engagement has been disappointing with what Mr Willis describes as a "mechanistic" approach to supplying skills and expecting businesses to respond.

The Government deserves credit for raiding the Train to Gain budget to help pay for its initiatives to help avoid chronic unemployment as a result of recession.

But the committee's report examining the impact of the 2006 Leitch review puts its finger on an underlying problem we have with education and training in England and probably the UK as a whole.

Re-skilling rather than upskilling is what the committee says is needed in the teeth of a recession, and it is spot on. People need skills in areas for which there is current and future demand.

Sounds sensible and yet the committee is sailing against the prevailing wind. Successive governments have been obsessed with the idea that qualifications exist largely to allow progression to the next level and so on until a centrally-set target is reached.

A foundation degree is a perfect example of a good qualification nearly ruined when some started talking about it as a "stepping stone" to an honours degree at a time when the Government's target was to get half of all young people into higher education.

Lord Leitch's report, as the committee points out, was produced in a pre- recessionary climate and so some of his priorities are no longer appropriate. One of these is his ambition for a nation with world-class skills by 2020.

By reminding us that the need now is for re-skilling and not upskilling as Leitch and others envisaged, the committee gives us pause for thought. Targets can be useful in driving aspiration, but they are inflexible and so of limited use and damaging when things are in a state of flux as they are now.

Clarity and focus on what works and, more importantly, what allows individuals to work is the new goal.

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