Setting the Skills and Employment Agenda for 2022 and beyond

Education for one career for life is now the exception not the norm for most school-leavers and graduates. The current workforce is on a treadmill of change. This is accelerating faster than most schools, colleges, universities and employers, let alone government departments, can plan ahead. Full-time working for one local or national employer at a time is being overhauled by flexible/hybrid/on-line working for several, around the the world at the same time. Governments must therefore compete to attract, sustain and retain taxpayers (both employers and workers).

Most current skills (including education and training) and employment (including terms, conditions and taxations) policies are therefore obsolete, irrelevant and/or counterproductive.  Many schools, colleges, universities and employers do excellent work preparing pupils, students  and workers for a world of change – but they do in the face of UK-centric career and curriculum development, delivery funding and regulatory regimes designed for (and by) a centralised, pre-internet, pre-pandemic, insular state.

How could/should we (including central and local government, employers and voters) respond?

I have written on the need for a new vision many times over the past forty years as the pace of change began to accelerate. Then came pandemic and lockdown. Decades of change were compressed into weeks. I began a personal progression through the Three Chinese Curses.

It began when I organised a CPF -CSTF ZOOM on the theme “How do we give the skills of the future to millions whose education has been disrupted and jobs destroyed” and used the results as evidence to a BEIS Select Committee enquiry . I am not sure what happened to that enquiry, but a direct consequence of the ZOOM and the report back was an invitation to organise a warm up session for for the 2021 Conservative Party Conference, on Making a reality of Lifelong Training in the Digital Age. transcript here. That led to an invitation to organise the Conservative Policy Forum National Discussion Group on Skills and Employment and a deadline for the first phase  of  March 31st 2022.

The Group reports to Number 10 and to Ministers via John Penrose MP as Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum but most of the actions identified for study do not require ministerial decision. They require “only” co-operation across departmental, organisational and  professional silos. That is, of course, very much harder. New departmental initiatives are comparatively easy. Cross-departmental co-operation, building on existing programmes which work, using budgets and resources transferred from those which do not, is not. The core objective is therefore not “mere” policy recommendations, but sustained co-operation between voters, employers and trades unions, including across political boundaries, to overcome the many barriers to change and enable education and training providers to respond.  How they do so which determine which will survive and flourish into the next decade … and those to come.

Below is the progress report agreed just before Christmas for use in advance of the first review meeting on 20th January.

  1. How do we make sense of what is already happening to enable employers to decide which initiatives to support and inform ministers accordingly?

On 20th January the lead volunteer will describe how her non-partisan team plans to pull together existing sources of information and work with existing groups of employers and suppliers to help address departmental dementia and focus their own resources on joining up past pilots and initiatives which have survived and work.

2. How do we persuade ministers of the urgency of action to prevent employers from walking away from apprenticeships as too complex/inflexible to meet their needs?

Success requires co-operation with both partisan and non-partisan groups of employers and trade associations, including to persuade shadow ministers. The officials who “interpret” what the “minister” wants, have to believe that the pressure will be sustained through changes of government not just of minister – and that it is better to exempt apprenticeships from century old, Haldane-style, processes and structures than to resist. Such a loss of control and status will be hard for many to accept.

  1. How do we better enable individuals to “prove” their skills/right-to-work to employers and employers to check them?

This is expected to build on the work of the Better Hiring Institute and of those education and training recording and badging  systems which can be linked using international operability standards. [On 27th December the Home Office began publishing the necessary guidance frameworks for “right to work”].

  1. How do we level up the whole country (urban, suburban and rural) so that everyone can access lifelong learning and training (young and old), using community spaces such as village schools and village and community halls to achieve this?

This is expected to begin by discussing how to collate/publicise  existing guidance for village halls (ACRE and DEFRA)  and schools (Grids for Learning and DfE) and examples of what can already be done e.g. The Wildern Site with  school, leisure centre and theatre or the B4RN full fibre training programmes for farmers and their wives. The next step will be to work with BT and its competitors (e.g. via INCA) to link to that on how to use the various broadband schemes.

  1. How do we smooth the path from welfare to work and onto incremental career paths?

This is expected to begin by introducing those seeking to map existing programmes onto the DWP Restart programme to those who have been developing relevant processes over the past few years to enable employers to work with charities to make better use of existing programmes and legislations (e.g. social values), like the Positive Transformation Group  .

  1. How do we turn IR35 from a problem into an opportunity?

National Insurance dates back to when few lived long after retirement. PAYE was introduced in wartime, when everyone was working for the State except for those running the black market. Today those able to work on-line may be employed simultaneously by employers around the world who may not know where are physically located. How do we make the business case to Treasury to target net contribution to the public purse rather than nominal revenue to HMRC?

In parallel the exercise will interface with, and support, a number of sector specific streams:

  • Cyber security, counter-fraud and on-line safety

City University is to host an event on March 10th to recruit financial services employers in support of the Cybersecurity Council and position City University as the hub for a network of overlapping skills partnerships to serve London as globally secure centre. There are similar, albeit as yet less developed, plans with  Universities in the Midlands and South West.

  • Digital

The first step is to identify those already working to cross-reference the various taxonomies and initiatives which confuse employers,  funding agencies, training providers and recruiters alike.

  • Digital infrastructure construction and maintenance

The underlying task is to bring about practical co-operation between BT, its competitors (such as the members of INCA, who have just launched a new skills group), local authorities and skills providers – including in the context of welfare to work programmes with the construction industry. The lead participants are already in discussion with, for example, Central London Forward.

Longer term questions, where we would hope, again, to work with others on an all-party basis include: 

  • How do we focus education on creative skills as a foundation for a world of lifelong learning/training/change? 

The  first step is to identify those already looking at this question, which goes to the heart of whether a national curriculum is fit for purpose in the digital age.

  •  How do we ensure UK education and training are globally competitive?

This is likely to begin with a round table for those in UK-based MATs and Schools Networks who are looking at their global, not just intra-UK positioning.

  •  The role of Universities as local, regional, global lifelong learning/training/skills hubs

The Cybersecurity event on March 10th (referred to above) came out of an all-party discussion on this topic. There are at least half a dozen Universities actively interested in comparing notes and/or forming partnerships with those who have similar aspirations.

  • Green Skills unpacking the agendas and identifying points of leverage and business models.

The start point will probably be discussions with those looking to repurpose existing qualifications (construction, digital, engineering, horticulture, maths, statistics etc.) and link these to welfare to work programmes. There is also clear interest in looking at similar approaches for higher level qualifications. Longer term the aim is to unpack the agendas and identify points of leverage and business models: from citizen science and schools programmes, through crafts, technical and trade to professional and research. Topics include carbon sequestration, conservation, habitat enhancement and creation (including for mandatory biodiversity net gain), energy efficiency, hydrogen, insulation, nuclear, pollution mitigation, recycling, regeneration etc.

I look forward to hearing from those who are interested in helping, including organising non-partisan co-operation to achieve objectives that are common to all parties.      

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