Changing tide of UK’s unskilled workforce

Everyone knows the refrain. The UK has the least skilled, least trained, least numerate and least literate workforce in Europe. Everything has been tried, from levies and Industrial Training Boards, to the recently abolished TECs – but resolutely, the problem remains.

But maybe things are changing. The government’s response to the Tomlinson report on the education and training of 14 to 19-year-olds – and the wider reaction – was very interesting. On the surface, the rhetoric was all about defending the ‘gold standard’ of GCSEs and A-levels, while making sure the hoi polloi could “read, write and add up”, in the infamous words of the CBI’s Digby Jones.

Of course, education minister Ruth Kelly made the ritualistic remarks about wanting to remove the stigma against vocational training – but, her critics insisted, by refusing to implement Tomlinson’s call for an overarching new diploma that would put the vocational and the academic on an equivalent footing, she wished away the means. Nothing had changed.

But dig a little deeper, and the story is subtly different. The government may not have implemented Tomlinson in full, but in adopting the notion of focusing vocational training into 14 learning lines, which culminate in diplomas that have the same worth as GCSEs and A-levels, it has come pretty close.

Moreover, the new system of building diplomas through blocks of credits intersects neatly with the way adults should be able to develop their learning certificates; using learning credits acquired when they were young but building on them with new credits to update their formal learning and diploma certificates. And with Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) playing an active role in devising the curricula, employers can be sure the skills will be economically useful.

In short, the UK is beginning to have the genuine components of a system of comprehensive life-long learning that works for both employers and employees – and it’s beginning to show. On the latest figures, 79% of 22-year-olds have acquired level 2 skills through either vocational or academic learning; and the government is confident that by 2010, the proportion will have risen to 85%, in line with the targets set in the so-called Lisbon agenda – one of the fastest improvements since the mid 1990s of any state within the EU. Moreover, UK employers spend more than 3.5% of wages costs on training – one of the highest figures in the EU.

Despite the educational establishment’s furious objections to Kelly’s temporising, what is proposed is still worthwhile. Together with the SSCs, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority’s emerging vocational qualification framework, high employer training and the remedial initiatives to boost numeracy and literacy, the reforms are actually working. The story on training could be about to change for the first time in a century.

By Will Hutton, chief executive, The Work Foundation

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