Will monies go to Leitch or be leached?

12th January 2007 at 00:00

Sometimes, the best way to find out what you think about a pressing issue of the day is to immerse yourself in other things. Lord Leitch's report on the skills Britain needs over the next 20 years generated intense debate when published last month. Then silence, as the demands of the festive season took over.

Comment copy = Now back to work, the report's ambitions for literacy and numeracy, intermediate skills and expansion of higher education still look impressive. Gordon Brown accepted the targets in his pre-budget statement.

Excellent news, provided the Chancellor backs his commitment with enough cash. This is no small proviso, given the promise of extra money for schools, the need to renovate the country's transport system and the apparent commitment to yet another generation of nuclear weapons.

Lord Leitch is right to say the departments for Work and Pensions and Education and Skills need to share coherent policies. Benefit claimants need help getting jobs and the skills to keep them in work. He is right to say the adult guidance service needs a shake-up. Right, too, that we should triple our spending on adult basic skills and extend higher education access to a rapidly ageing workforce. All good stuff - if there is the money.

But is he right to suggest that all cash for adult vocational education be shifted to demand led funding? He puts huge faith in the capacity of employers to recognise the skills the UK and its workforce need. This is not the first initiative to put employers centre stage. Will it prove more successful than earlier ones? Their past record leaves little room for optimism.

Lord Leitch gives qualifications a lot of weight. However, there is overwhelming evidence that workers and employers value most the skills gained informally at work. Generic skills such as teamwork and problem solving are learnt best by doing the job, not by taking structured courses.

The UK earns more from its creative industries and financial services than from manufacturing, and for both it is the skills a general education brings that are industrially valuable. Will a qualifications-driven adult skills strategy secure the breadth, ingenuity and flexibility a vibrant economy needs? Not on its own.

The cost of Leitch's proposals will squeeze other further education yet again. There will be learner accounts, where those who benefit most will be those whol do what government wants. But what about divergent thinkers, or adults returning to study but uncertain of their learning intentions? What about migrants? And older people? The Leitch report is light on the needs of such groups.

Not surprisingly, he has little to say on the role of education in promoting well being, confident active citizens, or the pursuit of happiness. Yet happy people work productively; they miss fewer days at work. And anyway, we work to sustain lives worth living. Lord Leitch is properly ambitious and the cost of acting on it will be large. But will the budget stretch to enable providers to respond to the real needs of students, trainees and enterprises? The jury is out.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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