For decades Britain has suffered a major skills mismatch, particularly at technician level.
We have made some progress, but as recent poor productivity figures show, the country is not keeping pace with other advances economies. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development last year ranked England 22nd out of 24 countries in terms of adult skills, and we are the only country where levels of literacy and numeracy scored lower among young people than for the older baby boomer generation.
Yet this global challenge will not be won by a race to the bottom. The fact is that since 2010, our skills system has become more centralised, not less. Small business in particular – representing over 90 per cent of all enterprises – have been locked out of many skills initiatives, including writing new apprenticeship standards. The coalition government has lurched from one policy gimmick to the next, such as the hastily withdrawn adult apprenticeship loans. Quantity in provision to win a favourable headline, has too often, been sacrificed on the altar of quality.
In England, the skills system continues to be predicated on the notion that national commissions, and bodies in Whitehall, know best. And for that reason alone, Andrew Adonis’ growth review may turn out to be one of the most significant policy statements since the creation of local training and enterprise councils in the early 1990s. Moreover, the idea of ‘smart government’ which Adonis puts forward is more than a clever political slogan: it goes to the heart of how a future Labour government will ensure balanced economic growth. Smarter government will help smash nearly three decades of consensus among policy elites that we can solve the skills mismatch by an overly complex state apparatus in skills delivery which simply lacks the right incentives to respond to the sheer scale of the challenge.
The proposals to devolve powers for skills planning and funding to county- and city-regions will ensure business and education have the tools to do the job, responding in different ways to meet both employer and local needs.
Labour has always been the party that seeks to devolve power, wealth and opportunity to the many. But perhaps too often we have equated these principles with the idea of crude redistribution and spending more money. These will remain important tools, but, as the party’s comprehensive policy reviews are starting to conclude, they will not be enough to transform living standards in future. Spending more public money will be limited. We have to get more out of what is being spent on skills already – by public and private means. We can use the next opportunity of national government to genuinely give power away, from to Whitehall to town hall, and from local municipalities to community citizen groups.
In the skills arena, the Adonis growth review sets out clearly how this will happen: reformed industrial and employer-led sector bodies placed at the heart of improving the quality and quantity of apprenticeships; a focus on youth and STEM apprenticeships to tackle the technician skills gap; and a new network of business clusters that can work more closely with schools and colleges to secure improved employment outcomes for our young people.
In Brighton and Hove, where I am standing as a candidate in the local council elections, there is real enthusiasm for these reforms. Both the Labour group and our excellent parliamentary prospective candidates are reaching out to the whole community. We are assembling a team, including candidates, that have experience outside traditional party politics, people who are running successful businesses or respected community leaders who have a reputation for getting things done. These skills will be critical in a city that has been incompetently led by the Green party since 2011, where literally rubbish has been allowed to pile up in our streets. Labour’s balanced growth plans will help us put in place a more competent city administration – including in the area of skills – where we have set a local ambition of eradicating long-term youth unemployment from our community. Smarter, better skills is the way forward.
Tom Bewick is chief executive of the International Skills Standards Organisation and a member of Hove constituency Labour party. He tweets @TomBewick
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.