Skills for work are not enough

7th July 2006 at 01:00
We have seen an abundance of skills displayed at the World Cup in Germany.

But converting them into a winning score-line is something that even the most talented teams have found difficult.

Skills in the UK: the long-term challenge, the interim report of the Leitch Review, seems to suffer from a similar problem. It supplies an impressive array of statistics on the distribution of skills, and their predicted outcomes. But I suspect that it has missed the target. Skills only make sense in the context of application: what are they to be used for and how?

Amartya Sen, a development economist, convincingly makes this point through his all-embracing concept of "capability", which he defines as the "freedom to achieve well-being". People need help to achieve their goals in all aspects of life - employment, family and community, health and well-being.

They also need help in realising what their goals might be in the first place.

The Leitch Review, which will produce its final report for the Treasury at the end of this year, sees skills in narrower terms: "employability" and "productivity" and, in what almost passes for a footnote, "social justice".

It also measures skills through qualifications rather than what people can actually do.

Key questions remain unanswered. Why, for example, should there be such massive disparities in educational performance and staying-on rates between countries? Just over a third (34 per cent) of English 17-year-olds are out of education, a far larger proportion than in most other developed countries.

Could the concentration of disadvantaged people in some parts of Britain be dampening motivation and driving under-achievement? The UK ranks sixth out of 27 in the EU's child poverty league table.

Or maybe a system divided between the elite A-level route to higher education and exit at 16 into low-level vocational alternatives or dead-end jobs is partly responsible? At 16, US teenagers still have two years of high school to complete. But why should British children sign up to skills acquisition through qualifications when there is no tradition of doing so in their community and little opportunity to apply these skills in worthwhile work?

The Tomlinson report attempted to offer equal opportunities and status for all post-16 routes. The rejection of its proposals says much for the Government's reluctance to change the status quo.

Moreover, the Leitch Review, which has been asked to identify the optimal skills mix in 2020, may be seen as part of the process of educational and social exclusion. Its interim report attributes skills to only three factors - innate ability, formal education and training on the job. It fails to recognise that skills can also be developed in the family and community.

The most important skill that anybody learns is how to speak their own language - a skill that parents, particularly mothers, impart to their children. And the most important purposes to which this skill is directed is learning how to learn, how to survive and how to differentiate between right and wrong. Parenting skills, co-operation and conciliation are also learned in the family and can transfer directly to the workplace.

Language is thus the unacknowledged core skill. The others that build upon it are literacy, numeracy, oracy and, increasingly, ICT.

On this point, I and colleagues at the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy are at one with Leitch. These basic skills are fundamental to the acquisition of more advanced skills, and the cornerstone of capability. The Government's Skills for Life Strategy is therefore to be applauded - especially the commitment to skills for life rather than for jobs alone.

But the longer-term skills needs of adults at all qualification levels also need attention. Adults bring a wealth of experience to any task they undertake but often lack the specialised skills the modern workplace demands. This is an increasingly important issue as there are not enough young people to replace the "baby boomers" who are due to retire over the next 10 years. Priority must therefore be given to honing, renewing and expanding the capabilities of adults already in the workforce.

But true regeneration of the community or society requires psychological and social competences, aspirations and resources, as well as the skills embodied in qualifications. Capability is the best hope of sustaining regeneration and promoting social justice: the goals of skills enhancement that the Leitch review has so far failed to pursue.

Professor John Bynner is a project director with the NRDC, which is based at the Institute of Education, University of London

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