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'Skills policy needs stability and consensus'

More successful skills systems have policy stability – the opposite of what is happening in England, says Stephen Evans

Skills policy needs stability says Stephen Evans of Learning and Work Institute

Let me start by saying that I know that what I’m about to suggest is probably never going to happen. Nonetheless, I’m going to suggest it.

One of the challenges we face in learning and skills is the constant chop and change of policies, initiatives and institutions.

Occasionally I get the chance to present on England’s skills system to visitors from other countries. When I show them a diagram of the system, they often look surprised at its complexity.

Stability is key

I then point out three scary things. The first is that this is the simplified version. The second is that most of the bodies listed in the diagram are less than 10 years old. And the third is that most of them probably won’t exist in another 10 years’ time. At that point, surprise turns to bafflement.

It’s difficult to pick out bits of another country’s skills system and transplant it over here. You can’t, for example, just replicate the German apprenticeship system without looking at the context it operates in; not all of which we’d want to copy. But a common theme from the more successful systems is stability.

So far, not very controversial. The challenge is, how do we achieve stability? Every new government or secretary of state wants to do their once-in-a-generation reform to "sort it out" and then have stability after that. But they then move on, often before rollout has finished.

In the dim and distant days of the mid-2000s, the Leitch Review of skills (which I worked on) was an independent review of skills needs intended to be the once-in-a-generation chance to settle things so that we wouldn’t need another one for at least a generation.

Cross-party, social partnership

There’s a future blog (or book) to be written about the history of policy at this time. But I wanted to focus on one idea that Lord Leitch was particularly focused on.

This was to try and forge a lasting, cross-party, social partnership on the future of skills and employment policy. This was to be embodied in a new UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), modelled on the Low Pay Commission (LPC).

Of course, life is what happens while we’re busy making plans and the UKCES has already joined a long list of now-defunct acronyms.

Lessons from elsewhere

But it’s worth reflecting on why the LPC has become part of our national infrastructure and what lessons we could learn for learning and skills in England. A few thoughts from me:

  • Genuinely independent – The LPC is seen as genuinely independent of politics and the government of the day. It is led by a social partnership and forms its recommendations on the basis of analysis by experts;
  • Clear remit – The LPC has a clear remit to set national minimum wage rates in such a way as to avoid (or minimise) their impact on employment. In recent years, it’s been asked to do this in the context of a path to a minimum wage worth 60 per cent of median wages;
  • Cross-party buy-in – The LPC was set up by a Labour government, but continued through a coalition and now Conservative government. But this, and its independence, doesn't stop political parties from arguing that the other side isn’t doing enough to improve living standards.

Better policy comes out of informed debate

I could have mentioned other bodies, like the Migration Advisory Committee. They, I think, are seen as experts in deciding which occupations need different migration routes.

But they do this within the remit set by government policy and, as you may have noticed, this doesn’t stop political parties arguing with each other about what the policy should be.

Another good example is the Office for Budget Responsibility, for similar reasons, and the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. All of these examples have genuine independence and have made a difference. None have taken the politics out of policy and nor should they – but better policy comes out of an informed debate.

So there are examples in related policy fields of independent bodies being established, having an impact, and standing the test of time. Why not in learning and skills?

Independence is crucial 

This would require a clear remit, perhaps around matching the world’s best skills profiles and maximising the impact of this on productivity, earnings and social wellbeing. It would need to be properly independent, perhaps founded in statute and led by social partners rather than government departments.

It would be focused on England, though, of course, other UK nations could set up similar bodies. And to stand the test of time, it would need to be forged on cross-party consensus, so it’s set-up and remit would be agreed by discussion between the main political parties and national and local government.

As I said at the start, it’s unlikely this is going to happen any time soon and there’s much more analysis of what went before and planning ahead needed, too. But then there was fierce debate about the introduction of the minimum wage back in the 1990s and very few people are now proposing its abolition.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that lots of things seem unlikely until they happen.

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

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