Skills sector struck by snowballing criticism

5th December 2014 at 00:00
`Flurry' of reports reveals consensus on the need for major reform

Pressure is growing on the government to radically reform England's skills system after a series of highly critical reports. Since the summer, a number of business and skills bodies have published detailed analyses highlighting serious problems and weaknesses, as well as suggestions for improvement.

David Hughes, chief executive of adult education body Niace, said the "flurry" of reports had revealed a "true consensus" that the skills system was no longer fit for purpose.

The concerns include warnings from the CBI and British Chambers of Commerce that young people lack the skills they need for work, as well as claims from the Skills Commission that the system is "fragmented" and "out of step" with economic needs, and will become "further misaligned" unless action is taken.

A report released last week by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) complains of a "lack of long-term stability" in the system and calls for a 20-year development plan. Growth Through People, co-signed by the CBI and TUC, claims that in the past few decades the skills landscape has been "characterised by constant change". It adds: "In our view, any government must maintain a stable policy environment over the next decade to enable employers and employees to invest in skills, jobs and growth for the long term."

Mr Hughes said: "The analysis is stark. There are wide skills gaps and skills shortages, with low productivity sitting alongside millions of people stuck in low-paid work or not able to access full-time work."

Niace has called for a commission to look into the situation and provide leadership and solutions.

However, Alison Morris, assistant director of the UKCES, said the skills system was not completely broken. "This is about evolution rather than revolution," she told TES. "More change is needed right across the sector, but there are building blocks here we can use."

Consensus is also growing on what needs to be done, with all the reports calling for closer links between the worlds of education and employment and greater collaboration between schools, colleges, training providers and businesses.

The UKCES said employers should take the lead in developing skills, but Professor John Coyne, vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, who helped to coordinate the report, told TES that colleges should be "genuine business partners".

"We must move beyond the current relationship to one where colleges and employers are designing the system together. The best colleges are already doing this," he added. The Association of Colleges said that institutions already worked with hundreds of local employers but were keen to do more.

Dr Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said: "Many colleges are already instrumental in developing better strategic relationships between education and employers, and it is good to see this model receiving further support."

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers is a strong advocate of an employer-driven skills system. "The partnership approach to skills, with employers having the choice to work with training providers of all types, is the only way forward," said chief executive Stewart Segal. "The best provision often involves employers, independent training providers, colleges and universities."

But skills minister Nick Boles told TES there was no need for a radical rethink. "I don't disagree with the fundamental idea that we need to have a modern skills system," he said. "We've already embarked on a pretty major reform programme - including a major reform of qualifications which have only now begun to come in - and huge apprenticeships reform.

"I think the reforms will take us to a place where we are in a stronger position."

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