“Once in every generation, at least, the government panics about a perceived skills shortage in the UK economy. It’s a crisis. Everyone gets blamed. A report is commissioned. Reforms are proposed. A new quango is established. Deadlines are set. Not much seems to change. Then there is another panic.”
So said an observer cited by the select committee investigating the state of the government’s reforms to apprenticeships and skills. In 2007.
A decade later, things haven’t improved much. Despite ministers’ perennial love of announcing a new agency or organisation being curtailed since the financial crisis owing to the absence of money to pay for them, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) still managed to materialise. That said, whenever commentators and policymakers begin questioning the value and purpose of an organisation before it even exists, the omens are not good.
A new employer-led body designed to promote employer engagement and skills investment, advise government on policy and delivery and oversee the creation of new apprenticeships and vocational qualifications – sound familiar? It should do, seeing as this remit was given to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) when it launched in April 2008.
One more dismal saga
The stellar cast of “commissioners” who brought their expertise and insight to this venture included the heads of John Lewis, Serco, BT, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress, as well as major third-sector organisations and representatives from the devolved administrations. With a budget that peaked at almost £90 million, the UKCES boldly set off with a mission to help transform the UK “into a world-class leader in employment and skills”.
In March 2017, almost exactly nine years after its unveiling, the lights were switched off at the UKCES for the last time. If the UKCES could not survive despite its funding and widespread support from stakeholders, is the IfA likely to fare any better?
From the moment we first learned about the IfA in November 2015, it has been a dismal saga. To begin with, the IfA was announced without stakeholders being properly informed or involved. Furthermore, it had to change its name almost immediately to reflect the 15 new Sainsbury review routes because they were not in the IfA’s original remit.
Two chief executives (both civil servants) will have come and gone within the first two years. The IfA’s board members are nothing like the overall calibre of the commissioners brought together by the UKCES, although two former commissioners did make the final cut. The vast majority of IfA staff appointments are civil servants with minimal experience, if any, in designing systems that can cope with approving, designing and subsequently monitoring hundreds of thousands of apprenticeships around the country.
It is equally discomforting that some of the civil servants who botched the government’s ongoing reforms of apprenticeships, as detailed in my recent report with the thinktank Policy Exchange, have mysteriously resurfaced in senior positions at the IfA.
Compounding these problems is the question of independence. Uncertainty over whether or not the UKCES was independent from government frequently posed problems. Ministers in the previous coalition government were continually bemused and frustrated by the idea that the UKCES was entitled to its own opinion. Regrettably, the IfA will not be truly independent either. Its underpinning legislation makes clear that the Department for Education will control (and can change) its remit. Cue behind-the-scenes wrangling when ministers disapprove of any decision made by the IfA. Moreover, it was launched “within the context of reaching 3 million [apprenticeship] starts in 2020”, which essentially ends any hope that the IfA will defend rigour and quality.
Lord Sainsbury’s review called for the IfA to be given wide-ranging autonomy in addition to demanding that inappropriate, overlapping or poor-quality apprenticeships are withdrawn. These calls have been ignored, illustrating the lack of desire among civil servants and ministers to promote high-quality training when political considerations are in play.
Reforms imposed from above
The government’s insistence that the IfA “will become a prominent and permanent feature of the apprenticeship delivery landscape, bringing long-term stability” looks increasingly optimistic. By rushing out a poorly conceived and under-resourced answer to some difficult questions without collaborating with employers, awarding bodies and providers, the government has inadvertently weakened the very organisation it just created. As has been the case ever since The Richard Review of Apprenticeships was published in 2012, the IfA is merely the latest example of reforms to vocational education being done to the sector rather than with the sector.
If the IfA was made a genuinely independent body charged with delivering a world-class technical education system and was given the power to make this happen, we could begin to hope that a sustainable and respected skills system could be within reach. If not, it will soon be time to brace yourself for another episode of panic-quango-panic.
Tom Richmond is a sixth-form college teacher, former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education and senior policy fellow at the Policy Exchange thinktank. He tweets @Tom_Richmond