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Our post-16 skills system is far from optimal

4 min read

Our new inquiry will help to shape a skills ecosystem that responds to local needs and national economic priorities

‘Fragmented’, ‘complex’, ‘difficult to navigate’ – such sentiments, for some, fittingly describe the present wrangling over Brexit, but for too many they equally well epitomise the state of England’s skills system.

Having long been a passionate advocate of practical accomplishment, I am well aware that our post-16 skills system is far from optimal. In the 22 years since I was first elected to parliament, the sector has seen more than 25 major reforms. Too often these reforms have been conceived in isolation, thus failing to stand the test of time. As technological and demographic changes invariably and unremittingly alter the fabric of our society and economy, the skills system should run like a well-oiled machine.

This is why my colleague and friend Barry Sheerman MP and I are co-chairing the Skills Commission’s cross-party inquiry into the skills ecosystem – the vitally important infrastructure that underpins skills provision for young people and adults. Our inquiry focuses on identifying the principles that a responsive and resilient skills ecosystem in England ought to be built upon.

We should all care about the quality of skills provision and how responsive its delivery is to both local conditions and national economic priorities. Though practical learning has over the years been seen as a neglected part of education policy, we all stand to benefit from an excellent skills system.

'An effective skills system is key to increasing productivity, delivering the industrial strategy and sustaining economic growth' 

Indeed an effective skills system is key to increasing productivity, delivering the industrial strategy and sustaining economic growth as we leave the EU. It has the power to raise wages, increase social mobility and ensure lifelong opportunities through retraining or reskilling. Creating a thriving skills system should therefore be at the very heart of cross-departmental policymaking – it is central to the national interest and the common good.

Reconnecting with those beyond the Whitehall bubble who directly deliver training and with the individuals and employers who stand to benefit from skills provision is imperative. This is why our inquiry is visiting three different places across England that are undergoing seismic economic and industrial change. We want to see first-hand the challenges local decision-makers, providers and employers are facing in coordinating and delivering skills provision in their local areas. We also want to see what is working well and how we can learn from best practice to allow places to flourish.

A telling example comes from our recent visit to Spalding in my constituency, South Holland and The Deepings. Representatives from the local enterprise partnership, local employers, colleges, independent training providers and community learning came together to discuss their experiences. One employer described implementation of the apprenticeship levy as a “car crash” while many others voiced their frustration at the struggle to take on apprentices since the policy overhaul. Providers echoed this and suggested that funding was driving supply, as opposed to the needs of the many SMEs.

Some problems that the skills system faces will be area-specific and some will be shared across the country. This is why we need to work analytically together across the House and the country to consider the skills ecosystem as a whole. Identifying persistent problems across areas, as well as considering differences, is imperative; only then can we achieve a skills ecosystem that is consistently resilient and responsive to the tests that our economy and society are facing.

Now is the time to learn from where we have been, take stock of what we have, and think strategically about the kind of skills ecosystem that we want to shape the future success of constituencies across the country.

Sir John Hayes is Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings

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