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Too many fingers in the pie

A single skills department would be a better recipe for success than the existing mess, says Ruth Silver

The big messages from Whitehall are all about focus and clarity, urgency and impact. Our purpose has been sharpened and our processes are to be streamlined, too.

The Public Accounts Committee is simply the latest to ask the question of the day: why are there so many fingers in the learning and skills pie? They recommend we rationalise responsibilities and simplify structures.

As a start, they suggest the National Audit Office might oversee all the ways in which we are monitored and evaluated. Counting up those sticky fingers, I think we can go much further than that.

It's a clear case of too many Whitehall cooks - especially now that everyone has woken up to our role in nourishing a successful economy. We know that our work is critical to the skills challenge, and others are catching on.

Within 10 years, 75 per cent of jobs, according to the Confederation of British Industry, will need level 3 (A-level equivalent) skills.

Functional, team and service skills need radical improvement. Most of us will need to reskill at least five times during our working life and we'll need to combine specialist skills in completely new ways.

Around 25 per cent of the workforce - 7 million people - will need to be developed to level 3, with another 4.5m brought up to level 2. It's not only business competitiveness that is at stake. Prosperity enables improved public services and social mobility. It will take much more than the current learning and skills pie to feed that kind of appetite.

So who's running the kitchen? There's a definite aroma of Downing Street. A year before the first skills white paper, the Treasury published Developing Workforce Skills. At around the same time, the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit put out Adult Skills for the 21st Century.

Gordon Brown has stayed very close to this agenda, having clearly identified skills as Britain's Achille's heel. The Leitch Review of Skills is a Treasury report. The FE white paper, which shaped the response to Foster and Leitch, was co-developed by the Department for Education and Skills and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. So both Numbers 10 and 11 are keeping their hand in.

Who decides what kind of pie we need? Foster and Leitch may be finalising the recipe but others come up with the detailed skills mix. The Sector Skills Development Agency seeks this out by industry. The Regional Development Agency sorts it out by region. The first is appointed through the DfES, the second through the Department of Trade and Industry. So now we have four government departments and one non-departmental public body to decide what flavour the customer really wants.

And who makes sure we get the ingredients? Young people are expected to make their career choices and find their route to qualification through Connexions. Older people receive advice and signposting from LSC-funded next-step services. Unless, of course, they are supported through Jobcentre Plus, New Deal or one of its offshoots. In that case it will be the Department of Work and Pensions that helps people to find their way through the skills, qualification and employment options.

On the qualification front, the SSCs are overhauling the occupational standards to ensure that employer needs are met. But the actual qualifications are designed and approved through the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Four years ago, they were asked to lead a major reform of vocational qualifications to make the system more flexible and responsive. Since then, the Framework for Achievement, specialised diplomas, functional skills and the personal, learning and thinking skills framework have all been added into the mix. And these qualifications must be employer designed and market led, so SSDA input is vital.

It's not yet clear how all of that will turn out but there's certainly a danger that some of the original flavour will be lost.

All these fingers have already dabbled before Ofsted grades the finished product and the LSC decides what it's going to buy and what it's going to bin.

Five government departments, as many non-departmental public bodies and any number of specialist agencies are directly involved in cooking up the skills agenda. Providers are prodded and poked while they sift the available ingredients and try to serve up what the customer wants. This is not a recipe for success.

So how about a single department for skills? One department could commission the economic forecasts and work with employers - by sector and by region - to find out exactly what skills they need. The same department could signpost development opportunities to all potential learners, young and old, in or out of work.

This department would make sure there was a real fit between the skills needs, the qualifications that show people can meet these needs and the teachers and the programmes that prepare people for the qualifications. It would plan and fund the provision. It would also oversee the monitoring and improvement processes that ensure the quality of that provision.

Isn't that pretty much how things work in areas such as health or transport or defence? Now that we all know that the skills strategy is critical to the future of all these things, isn't it time to give skills its own department, too?

Rumour has it that John Healey at the Treasury is a master cook.

Ruth Silver is principal of Lewisham college

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