Journalist Henry Harington examines the Government's record in training & skills for 2008. Apart from a raft of legislation, what has the government achieved in its drive to upgrade the nation's skills?
Thirty years ago Labour was faced with a stinging election poster: the Tory's "Labour isn't working" billboard sent a shock through a party for which the protection of the working class was as entrenched as coal dust under a miner's fingernails.
In those 30 years - 11 of them in government - there has been a revolution that Labour has been forced to embrace – globalisation – and with it the erosion of the employment base, particularly the jobs requiring low skills that had been the foundation of the British economy.
Conservative party Green Paper 'Building Skills, Transforming Lives'
Globalisation also has imposed a flexibility on the workforce: yesterday’s miners click computer keyboards (with clean nails). Miners used to talk suspended on a wire heading down from the pithead; now they are in call centres pitted against customers down the wire from a head set. Globalisation has imposed a de-skilling and commoditisation of jobs that can be easily exported.
The Conservative Party seems to think their 1979 poster campaign is still current. In a greenpaper 'Building Skills, Transforming Lives' they say: "It is astonishing how little the Government has achieved in terms of meeting the challenge of raising skills in over a decade in office".
Indeed it was only in 2004 that Lord Leitch was tasked by the Government with considering the UK’s long-term skills needs. The Leitch Review’s conclusion - that the UK should become a world leader in skills by 2020 - led to the government admitting that, “We still have a mountain to climb".
The 2008 recession and the accelerated rate of job losses are transforming that mountain into a mountain range with steeper slopes and higher peaks.
In adopting the Leitch Review 'World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England' the Government started its ascent to global skills leadership by publishing no less than 76 proposed 'actions' to be implemented by 2015.
In October, John Denham, secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills kick-started the government's adoption of Lord Leitch's proposals by establishing pilots of the Adult Advancement and Careers Service. These are to work with Jobcentre Plus to give every adult access to skills, careers advice and information on financial entitlements that will be reflected in their skills account.
Mr Denham commented: "The 10 prototypes we are launching will test a deliberately broad range of ways in which advice from different organisations can be brought together…" exploring "how the voluntary and community sector can contribute".
Too many targets?
While welcoming the moves towards a more comprehensive adult service the Conservatives believe there is a danger that the Government is repeating the mistakes it made with the establishment of Connexions. They fear the result is likely to be that the objective of universal and impartial careers advice is overshadowed by the urgency of targeted programmes.
The select committee on the draft Apprenticeship Bill
The Opposition is also unimpressed by the Skills Account saying that it differs little from the existing provisions, indeed their express concern is that "People will only be able to use these accounts to pay for a narrow range of accredited training schemes."
Mr Denham counters this by suggesting that the prototypes can be expected to evolve: "I don't expect that we will work through this process and find that we just need an agency that offers advice on training".
The government also adopted Leitch's idea of a Skills Pledge. The Pledge enables employers to demonstrate a commitment to improving skills in their workplace, and through Train to Gain brokerage. The Skills Pledge was launched in on 14 June 2007 and a year on, the Government says organisations covering nearly four million employees throughout England have made the Pledge.
A major thrust for the government is promoting apprenticeships, an issue so important it was mentioned in the Queen's Speech in 2007 and again in 2008. The launch of the National Apprenticeship Service was announced in January 2008 with a view to it being fully functional from April 2009 with BBC TV's The Apprentice star Sir Alan Sugar fronting publicity.
The new Children, Skills and Learning Bill announced this year's Queen's Speech and will give all suitably qualified young people a legal right to an apprenticeship from 2013.
However, the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee has reservations about the Draft Apprenticeships Bill: they are not convinced that legislation is required to achieve the aim of more apprenticeships in the light of a DIUS Minister's reference to it being of "symbolic importance".
The Select Committee also say that, "Given the economic downturn, we have grave doubts about whether the bill's statutory duties for the creation of apprenticeships can be met. Even if it can, we fear that the pressure of that duty could lead to the quality of apprenticeships being compromised".
The opposition does not consider the government is delivering much in its drive for the creation of apprenticeships: "As a result of this bureaucracy, the Government has consistently missed its targets for apprenticeship numbers. In his 2003 Budget, Gordon Brown announced that apprenticeship places would rise to 320,000 by 2006. In fact, there were only 239,000 apprentices in training in 2006/7 and numbers are falling. In short, schemes that would once have been labelled Youth Training Schemes (YTS) are now described as apprenticeships though they are qualitatively no different."
The Tories are also critical of the shortage of apprenticeships in the public sector. They say: "This is a wasted opportunity". In fact in the light of the economic downturn the government has announced that it is doubling the number of apprenticeships in the civil service to 1,000 across sixteen government departments.
The Tories particularly criticise the government for rejecting its own reviews, such as those carried out by Sir John Cassels and Lord Leitch, which advocated an apprenticeship system driven by employers. They say Leitch, in particular, strongly recommended that the Government should move from supply-side planning to demand-led skills training.
The question in the current economic climate is whether the private sector has the enthusiasm for skills training or whether it will leave the upgrading of the nation’s skills to the government.
Henry Harington is a writer on business and economic issues and can be reached at [email protected]