Big problems require radical solutions

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Our new government professes to be on the side of hard-working people. But can it deliver the skills overhaul that they desperately need?

"We are the party of hard-working people" has already become a familiar phrase in the early days of this government. The new business secretary, Sajid Javid, has the relevant experience to understand what that means for the millions of people in this country who, through education and enterprise, have forged better lives for themselves and their families. For the many who are university graduates, the economy is beginning to deliver, and those with higher-level skills are likely to prosper in the coming years.

But how do the policies stack up for those people, young and old, who have yet to secure the benefits of lifelong learning? The evidence is clear: the current employment and skills systems are failing too many people and consequently failing businesses, the economy and the country as whole. Four critical challenges stand out: the barriers facing those trying to secure their first jobs; people of working age struggling to find work; those on low pay and in low-productivity jobs; and the skills shortage that is hampering companies' development.

The last decade has been a disaster for those who missed out on a good education. Opportunities for learning once people reach their twenties have collapsed as funding has been cut by both the government and employers. More than a million learning opportunities have been lost, training at work has been reduced and self-funded part-time learning has collapsed since the introduction of student loans. In the field of unemployment, the Work Programme has "parked" people who deserve more support, such as those with disabilities. And access to apprenticeships remains unequal.

This perfect storm is damaging our chances of a sustained and vibrant economic recovery because it limits the prospects and opportunities of millions of people who want to work hard while having fulfilling lives and careers.

Reform from the inside out

Of course, it would be great to see the funding reinstated. But in light of Conservative manifesto commitments to cut public spending that is unlikely, at least in the short term. Even if the cuts were reversed, the system would still not be delivering for hard-working people and those who want to be hard-working. Instead, we need radical reform. And this just might be the government that can deliver it.

Reforms need to drive demand from learners and businesses to release the entrepreneurial spirit in education and employment. Taking this approach avoids the regular, arcane and self-defeating debates about the structure of the sector and the machinery of government. A simple but radical approach would favour personal control of learning and support through accounts; greater employer investment in skills that benefit their bottom line; joining up of employment and skills locally through devolved powers; and a supply side that has the freedom to respond with new delivery models, new products, greater use of technology and more learner-centred solutions.

My advice to the new business secretary and his ministers is to work with us to reform the system. It is not delivering what we need, so let's change it.

For young people, the promise of 3 million apprenticeships over the next five years is welcome. However, two problems remain: quality and access. The reputation of the apprenticeship programme is under severe strain - the experience of too many apprentices is poor and the outcomes are not good enough.

At adult education body Niace, we have proposed a new apprentice charter to set standards for employers who want to offer an expansive experience with the simple aim of helping every apprentice to become expert in their discipline. I would also reset the measure of success for apprenticeships to become securing a job that offers progression and opportunities.

Learning and earning

A better-quality apprenticeship programme could become a respected path for talented young people, but we still need to do more on access. Participation of disabled people and those from black and minority ethnic communities is pitiful and must be addressed. We also need investment in proper traineeships that motivate young people to aspire to jobs with prospects. We propose a new learning-and-earning route to help make this happen and look forward to supporting the Conservatives in fulfilling their commitment to a new youth allowance.

With only 10 per cent of Work Programme participants finding sustained work and half of all disabled people out of work (compared with a quarter of those who are not disabled), we need radical reforms in this area, too. Skills and support are critical, particularly for people who need extra assistance. We want to see a distinct employment programme for disabled people, which is commissioned locally alongside skills development.

Our most radical idea also fits well with the newly elected government's thinking. Britain has 5.2 million low-paid workers, 1 million more than the average among countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. If this is to be a government for hard-working people, then a new advancement service is essential for developing skills and focusing on raising productivity and, as a result, improving pay. A refocusing of National Careers Service funding could make this happen quickly and would provide support for the roll-out of universal credit.

Skills shortages are widening as the economy grows and there are not enough young people entering the labour market to fill much more than half the vacancies. Another radical focus would be to find ways to support working people in gaining new skills at higher levels. So far, the loans in further education and part-time higher education have failed to deliver. The challenge is tough - how do we persuade hard-working people to invest their time and take on debt? And what role is there for employers in that challenge? But even that is not enough, because colleges and universities need the freedom to offer more flexible ways to learn. They also need investment to make those changes.

More than anything, we need a new vision for how people learn, develop themselves and access good jobs. I will be happy if that vision is centred on how hard-working people can access work, progress at work and earn more through higher productivity. That would be a sound basis for a society of lifelong learners, with everyone able to realise their ambitions and talents.

David Hughes is chief executive of adult education body Niace

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