'World-class skills will have to wait'

16th January 2009 at 00:00
MPs say need to retrain workers hit by recession will thwart UK's aim to be a major global player

Britain's ambition to have world-class skills by 2020 is "probably impossible" now that the recession has made re-skilling redundant workers a priority, a report by MPs has said.

With tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, skills policy needed to take a broader approach that focused less on moving people on to higher-level skills and more on re-equipping them for new careers, according to the innovation, universities and skills select committee.

The committee's report said: "The Leitch review was produced at a time of economic optimism. The change in the economic climate will mean that priorities will have to be identified, and it will not be possible to pursue all parts of Leitch. The targets set are probably impossible, but that does not mean the direction of travel is not laudable."

Phil Willis, chairman of the committee, said the focus on people without a level 2 - GCSE-level - qualification was preventing workers from replacing out-of-date skills.

"We now need a complete rethink as far as the skills agenda is concerned," he said.

"Train to Gain through employers did seem right two years ago. But it has not delivered in the way that the Government intended and it is not fit - at this moment in time - to deliver the agenda to deal with the massive problems of unemployment."

Despite government claims that it had made "significant progress" towards the target for world-class skills that would put the UK in the top quarter of international league tables, the committee said not enough had been achieved.

It cited the chairman of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Chris Humphries, who said: "I am certainly not satisfied with the rate of progress at the moment."

As a result of the focus on employers, the potential of further education colleges to help improve the nation's skills was also being underused, the committee said.

David Collins, president of the Association of Colleges, said colleges were pleased that the committee was tackling concerns that they needed a freer hand to meet employers' and individuals' needs.

He also welcomed the fact that the committee had highlighted the bureaucracy surrounding the skills system. Mr Willis described it as a "dog's breakfast" and a "complete mess".

The Government is diverting money away from Train to Gain into retraining and announced an extra Pounds 83 million for FE skills provision at this week's "skills summit".

John Denham, the Skills Secretary, said: "We are reshaping the Train to Gain budget so that employees are able to retrain and small businesses can easily access short training programmes that will help their businesses today."

Comment, page 4.

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