New skills shake-up is needed

Last month, my eight-year-old daughter offered me a swimming lesson: an hour’s tuition in ‘tumble turns’. Patiently, she broke down the technique for me – but after 30 minutes of determined coaching, the lesson ended. What was very simple for her was very complicated for me, I just didn’t ‘get it’.

Back in the office, I find myself comparing the UK’s skills and employment systems with tumble turns. Each individual part seems to be simple enough, and when you speak with individual players – and there are many – you will get a spirited and coherent explanation as to why the work they do is so important and pivotal to the smooth running of the system.

Persuasive as these arguments may be, when you link them together you do not achieve a collective where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And if you assume that the government is the overall architect, and it can articulate the grand vision, you’d be wrong. An all-party Commons committee report, published at the beginning of the year, referred to the complex system of interlinked public bodies, funding sources and rules for skills training as a “dog’s breakfast, impenetrable to everyone apart from possibly a few civil servants and a handful of academics”.

Ministers have been calling for radical simplification for some time, and last year tasked the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) with recommending ways to achieve this. Over the summer, we ran an informal consultation and concluded that the root cause of the current complexity is two-fold:

  • Current employment and skills services are not sufficiently integrated with one another and neither are aligned to labour market needs; and
  • Customers – that is, employers and individuals – are not empowered, informed and trusted sufficiently to drive demand, performance and quality.

At the moment, the main output sought in the employment system is getting people without work into jobs. But the type of job – how sustainable it is, the type of skills it requires and the progression it affords – is largely overlooked. Consequently, we have the merry-go-round where individuals come off benefits to get a job for a few weeks before becoming claimants again.

Similarly, on the skills side, a preoccupation with qualifications (an output) has caused us to lose sight of the final desired outcome – sustainable employment with skills and progression.

In both instances the remedy is the same. Integrate employment and skills services more and make both ‘parts’ worry more about the same things. Specifically, we believe that employment services should be managed on the basis of progression (wage gain) and skills, as well as just job starts. And skills services would reciprocate by defining success in terms of not just qualifications success, but progression either in learning or work. Both would also add customer satisfaction as an outcome – employer and individual.

The second proposition is that the current system is excessively complicated because it does not empower customers to effectively drive service volumes, performance and quality. We’re proposing that easy-to-understand, easy-to-compare information on employment and skills services should be available to customers at ‘point of purchase’. Information on learning success, customer satisfaction, progression (in work or in learning) and wage gain should be provided as the most realisable evidence of progression and quality.

The change would not be painless; how many people would rationally sign up for a course – particularly in higher education, where you have to contribute towards the fees – knowing that few previous participants got a job at the end of it, or that the drop-out rate was twice the national average? And how many colleges, universities and providers would be happy to advertise that their courses have a customer satisfaction rate of less than 50%? By making the system more transparent, we can expect to see good provision that meets the needs of employers and allows learners to flourish, while less-good provision is forced to improve or slowly wither on the vine.

We could simplify swathes of the system if we invested in the wisdom of customers and allowed public funding to follow their choices. Link this back to the first proposition of integrated employment and skills services commissioned against common outcomes, and to me this is a powerful proposition for helping people progress in work through skills.

Michael Davis, director of strategy and performance, UKCES

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