Education has recently been at the centre of so many Covid-related controversies that it is easy to forget the Government’s commitment to radical reform. So the publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper is to be warmly welcomed. It focusses on the realignment of the education system with the world of work, by combining short term measures with a long term vision, starting in absolutely the right place : the revival of further education.
This has been the least understood, most poorly funded aspect of education, subject to chaotic policy churn for over a generation. It has lost its focus while the system as a whole has lost its balance. Mass higher education has seen universities grow and schools focus their attention almost entirely on progression to residential three year degrees, which has left a lot of people and places behind, while leaving employers frustrated and many graduates disgruntled. As David Goodhart’s “Head, Hand and Heart” argues, there was a growing consensus before the health crisis, that the monopoly power of generalist, monoglot, cognitive skills is economically ineffective, socially divisive and unaffordable. If anything, the experience of the last twelve months has reinforced the need for change.
Changing the skills system is complex and difficult work, made harder by peculiar systems, vested interests, ingrained attitudes and delicate institutional arrangements. And as Tony Blair once disparagingly remarked, it is not a policy area the public find thrilling. But it does hold the key to changing a lot of lives for the better. It is brave to recognise this and to make it such a central part of the wider “levelling up” plans.
Skills for Jobs combines short terms measures with a longer term plan. It offers some immediate hope for low skilled adults, who are the most left behind people in the country, to upskill and retrain. It also provides a new framework for colleges and employers to collaborate, to meet the needs of their area and design the qualifications needed to do this. And it gives further education a commitment of capital investment, support to recruit teachers, and a simplified funding system – all of which will make it stronger and more resilient.
The White Paper will, no doubt, have its critics. On its own, it will not be a sufficient answer to the full challenge of “levelling up” in places like Oldham, where I work. But it should not be judged as a stand alone policy. As Andy Westood and I argue in a recent Policy Exchange debate, real progress on this issues will require significant realignment of a range of related policies, aswell as a concerted effort from employers, educators, and local government, to bring private and public initiatives together in ways that add up to more than the sum of the parts. However, with Skills for Jobs, we now have a solid starting point and we need to seize the moment and make it work.