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Stop-starting over skills has UK falling back

Just what is the problem with skills training in Britain?

Our universities continue to punch above their weight internationally and, despite incessant government fiddling and growing social pressures, our schools still annually turn out tens of thousands of young people who are remarkable for their educational achievement, often against the odds.

Training and skills, on the other hand, have been reinvented more times than Victoria Beckham's look, and still the UK continues to fall behind competitor countries, as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) warns (pages 1 and 3).

Perhaps there is something inherent in the nature of skills and their importance to society that has troubled us since Stone Age man first bemoaned the poor state of flint knapping among the youth of the tribe.

Like car mechanics, we, as a society, seem to enjoy standing around the UK skills engine shaking our heads, reeling off a long list of defects and winding up by saying: "It's going to cost you."

The UKCES report, "Ambition 2020", could be just another (failed) MoT for UK skills, pointing out that we are systematically losing ground against our competitors and that the economy has had it, unless we act fast.

We have heard similar things in the past. Peter Morgan, director general of the Institute of Directors, talked in 1990 of a vicious cycle of declining skills. Four years later, the Conservative government's white paper on competitiveness was hailed as a step in the right direction towards closing the skills gap between the UK and its competitors.

Given the parlous state of UK skills described in the latest report, the 1994 legislation must have failed utterly, or succeeded long enough for us all to sit back and have the national equivalent of a cup of tea while we admired our handiwork and the rest of the world spent the time upskilling and reskilling.

It is this stop-start approach that has blighted the UK's skills system.

Skills evolve at a phenomenal rate, far too fast for periodic government white papers and policy to keep pace. This is why the UKCES report stands a better chance than previous pieces of work in this area. The commission seeks to reconnect the worlds of work and training from the grassroots up, with less money absorbed by intermediary bodies such as quangos.

It understands the vital role of employers in driving the skills agenda by showing leadership and ambition.

Course providers, such as colleges, must be more responsive to training needs, but the responsibility for communicating and supporting those needs rests with employers.

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