Skills Pledge: possibly the worst initiative since Back to Basics

More than a year after its launch, the Skills Pledge is proving marginally more popular than a William Hague hair-do. Has even the government wised-up to the fact that it isn’t what employers want?

Hands up those of you whose employers have signed the Skills Pledge? Er, that will be about 1 in 10 then.

Like most government-inspired initiatives that aren’t backed by money and compulsion, this one is running out of steam. Perhaps ministers and civil servants involved in dreaming-up the pledge must have thought that pitching it low and making it voluntary would make it more attractive to employers.

The pledge’s lack of impact brings to mind some of the airy-fairy initiatives of the John Major government. For example, who now – other than David Mellor – recalls the Back to Basics campaign with anything but utter disdain?

Consider the facts: according to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), fewer than 1,300 organisations have signed the Skills Pledge, in theory covering about three million employees. Most of these will already be qualified to Level 2 (five good GCSEs) anyway, so the pledge is irrelevant to them.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says 13% of its members say their employer has signed the pledge – again, hardly indicative of a stampede to pick up the quill and sign the parchment.

Even skills secretary John Denham seems to have got the message that the pledge is not the kind of initiative that is going to cover a politician in glory. He said recently that the number of employers signing the pledge wasn’t significant as long as the message that it’s important to invest in training and development was being driven home – as if most employers don’t realise that anyway.

Of course, had, say, one in two employers signed the wretched pledge it would have been highly significant and something to put on the ministerial CV alongside, in Denham’s case, charity fundraising and supporting Southampton. How Denham and those in government bothered about skills must wish that Lord Leitch had given that one a miss.

On reflection, it’s astonishing that those behind the Skills Pledge thought that it was a good thing in the first place. Restricting it to just about the lowest rung of the skills and learning ladder was never going to invest it with glamour or gravitas.

Employers may moan about the basic educational standards of some jobseekers, but they were unlikely to see addressing literacy and numeracy issues as their responsibility. Indeed, cynics may say the pledge is a vehicle that the government was hoping to use to absolve itself of the shortcomings of the state education system, where tens of thousands of youngsters can wallow for 11 years and come out functionally illiterate and innumerate.

That wonderful thing hindsight would say that the pledge might have worked had it addressed higher level skills and ones that employers wanted. As it is, the focus is on meeting government targets for school-level qualifications.

Interestingly, Train to Gain seems to be gaining some traction among employers. For example, the CIPD says 25% of its members claim their employer is using the service.

Could it be because it offers them subsidised training at reputable institutions that is relevant to their business? Er, probably.

Also, Denham and his advisers seem to have grasped the fact that employers don’t think low-level skills – make that essentials – are their responsibility. That’s one reason why the LSC is to be wound up, with funding saved going towards paying for raising the school leaving age to 18.

This thinking seems to have also filtered through to the Train to Gain programme: in a written Parliamentary answer in February, Denham said the Train to Gain budget for leadership and management skills was to rise from a paltry £4m to £30m. This is a sure sign that the government’s emphasis is moving towards backing higher skills development provision.

Of course, free marketers would argue that it’s up to employers to decide what learning and development provision they should make and that the government should steer well clear other than offering tax breaks on training spend. Don’t expect an outbreak of such commonsense any time soon.

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