I’m writing this in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, where the Learning and Work Institute has been holding our annual Employability and Skills Convention. This is the eleventh convention and it’s fair to say that there’s been so much change over that time. There’s now greater devolution, including the recently launched Fair Start Scotland employment programme. There have also been referenda, elections, policy reforms and much else.
Two things have, I think, particularly struck me. The first is that many of the challenges that Jamie Hepburn, the Scottish minister for business, fair work and skills, spoke to us about are similar to those in other parts of the UK. The employment rate is high by historical and international standards, but some groups and areas still miss out. Most strikingly, the employment rate gap for people with disabilities is stubbornly large – in fact, slightly bigger in Scotland than the UK as a whole.
Improving the quality of work is a central policy concern, both to improve prospects for individuals and to boost productivity. Again, this is a big focus in conversation and debate across England and Wales, too.
Aligning learning with other services
All of this takes place in the context of technological change, demographic change and the potential impact of Brexit. And we can only make progress on all of these challenges by effectively integrating and aligning a range of services, including employment support, learning, skills, transport and housing. Again, these are common themes wherever you are in the UK.
The second thing that strikes me is the opportunity to learn from different approaches to tackling these challenges. Our convention heard from the Scottish government’s health and work support pilot, which aims to provide clearer pathways through services, and the Department for Work and Pension's Work and Health Unit, which is testing a number of approaches to joining up services across the UK (we’re part of the evaluation of these). We also talked about the best way to engage employers, and value kindness in employability and skills – I sometimes think initiatives, policies and funding rules risk forgetting that people are the ultimate customers.
So there is a lot of interesting and innovative work taking place in Scotland. But I know that is also the case across the UK. There are some mechanisms for sharing these learnings. But I wonder what more we can do to share experience (good and bad) in both policy and practice? This is not just about sharing across the UK. There is a lot we can learn from other countries and vice versa. For example, forthcoming Learning and Work Institute research will look at pre-apprenticeship practice across a number of European countries.
Space for sharing practice
Of course, each national and local context is different – you can’t simply copy an approach and expect the same results. And none of this is easy when the pace of change is so great and just doing the day job is tough enough.
I do think there’s a role for government in creating the space and frameworks for sharing best practice – for example, devolution of the adult education budget in some parts of England doesn’t mean no role for the government in those places. Rather, the government should come together with those devolved areas to create networks and encourage sharing. And it should commission robust evaluations of new approaches it takes so that, as far as is possible, we test what works.
But beyond that I wonder what good examples of current sharing there are and what more we as a sector can do to facilitate this? There’s so much we can learn from each other, with the potential through better policy and practice to improve outcomes for people.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute