This country has double the proportion of adults with the lowest level of basic skills compared with counties such as Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. Just over a half of adults in the UK are qualified to level 2 (the equivalent of five GCSEs, grades A-C) or above, whereas in Germany this figure is nearer three-quarters. At level 3 (broadly A-level, NVQ 3) our relative position is even poorer. Around 60 per cent of the population were qualified to this level in Germany, twice the proportion in the UK. Although we have made some progress since then, our position relative to Germany remains poor.
Nor is the world standing still. In a globalised economy, in which technological change is rapid and continuous, productivity and competitiveness depend fundamentally on the skills of the workforce. Individual security in employment, and national economic prosperity, are dependent on the possession and continual renewal of skills and knowledge.
This is the skills challenge we face, and I make no apology for the vigour with which we are tackling it. Inevitably, in a period of rapid change it can be difficult to keep up with developments across the board. However, the Government is guided by the needs of employers and employees. Our surveys have shown that many employers know the broad outlines of our policy and are well-informed about many of the details. More than that: they are also actively involved in delivery.
Nick Reilly, chairman and managing director of Vauxhall Motors, for example, has formed an influential business group to encourage employers’ involvement. I have just completed a series of regional conferences about the new arrangements to which more than 500 local delegates came.
At the heart of the new arrangements is the Learning and Skills Council, which will simplify post-16 learning by replacing the current fragmented system with a coherent single body. It will work with other key national and local partners including the UfI and the local Learning Partnerships for planning, funding and, most importantly, for improving the quality of all post-16 learning up to degree level.
In the same way, the Small Business Service will offer a single point of contact for business support while the Employment Service will work closely with the local LSC, and other partners, to deliver work-based training in a joint Welfare to Work plan for sustained employment. Personnel Today readers will not have been helped by your confusion about how all of these fit together.
Let me address some of the detailed points in the Lessons in Learning article. The national learning targets, the Skills Task Force and the Moser Report have all been widely welcomed as addressing real problems which need to be tackled.
ICT Learning Centres and UfI learndirect centres have quite distinct roles. ICT Learning Centres give people basic ICT skills and the confidence to progress into further learning. Learndirect will provide access to a wide range of learning opportunities
Learning Partnerships are groups of learning providers and users working together to make provision better for local communities. Far from withering away, they will play a crucial part in providing the essential local overview for LSCs.
Employers can look forward to a single, simple mechanism for acquiring the skilled workforce they need, through a local point of contact in the Learning and Skills Council. Innovations such as this will mean that the transition to our vision of a much-improved service will be as smooth as possible, and we shall continue to work hard with our partners to ensure that we achieve results.
So, I make no apology for the extent of the changes we are introducing to deliver wider access to high quality learning and skills, nor for the speed with which we are doing it. The scale of the problem demands radical action – and we are taking it.
• Malcolm Wicks is Minister for Lifelong Learning