Towards UK Skills and Employment Policies for a Post-Pandemic World

Plague expedites change. The Black Death precipitated a century of turmoil which terminated the Feudal System in England. Covid has already precipitated the biggest challenge to UK education structures since the dissolution of the monasteries and chantries led to the creation of the grammar schools which educated Shakespeare, Marlowe and Newton.  The first phase of that transition took over a decade. It gathered pace over the next century before a new wave of change crated the non-conformist schools which educated those who made the industrial revolution.

On 25th November we held the first briefing session for those who have volunteered to help lead the Conservative Policy Forum National Discussion Group on the Skills and Employment Policies we need in order to handle a world in which the pace of change has overtaken the ability of Central Government to plan. We had a stellar cast of participants and I had the pleasant surprise of discovering how much of that transition is already under way, supported by employers who are thinking further ahead than most gurus.

The oddity of the otherwise excellent Open Letter to the Prime Minister from the IET, is that it calls for funding for pilots based on the outputs from its proposed round tables. It would have saved precious time, not just money, had it proposed that those round tables be tasked to identify relevant lessons from the many pilots organised over the past decade, including by IET and its members and partners, It could then have called for Government funding to help publicise those which have succeeded in addressing the needs identified by engineering employers so that they can be built on and replicated before our competitors  around the world do so.

Time is not on our side

The discussion on November 25th led to a request to prioritise the many topics that need to be discussed. The list had grown substantially since that in my blog of 28th October . The participants wanted to focus on those which are urgent as well as important – in order to build momentum, demonstrate results and recruit support to address those topics which may be more important in the long term, but also require more time and effort from wider audiences.

A cursory collation and comparison of recent studies into education and training policy and practice reveals gulfs in perspective and understanding between those looking at access, at inclusion, at levelling up, at mainstream recruitment, at workforce updating, at high level niche expertise and at patterns of employment.

There are further gaps between those looking at skills and those looking at the implications of:

  • changing from a norm of one employer, full-time, for life,
  • through flexible/hybrid working and short term contracts
  • to self-employment and/or zero hours for multiple employers

(whether on the part of the unskilled or technicians, professionals or world class experts with supposed skills in short supply or crisis).

The Forward Plan

Phase 1 of the work of the National Discussion Group begins with a draft framework, sent out for review last week. I began collating the feedback earlier today. This will used for the public announcement of the CPF National Discussion Groups (of which this is but one) before the Christmas break.

The initial panel of discussion leaders have been asked to set objectives (recruitment, discussion plans and/or summaries of existing material/knowledge) for a first review of progress on January 20th.

I am receiving feedback on the six immediate priorities (i.e. first deliverables by March 31st 2022) identified on 25th November.

  1. How do we make sense of what is already happening to enable employers to decide which initiatives to support and inform ministers accordingly?
  1. How do we persuade ministers of the urgency of action to prevent employers from walking away from current apprenticeship programmes as too complex/inflexible to meet their needs?
  1. How do we better enable individuals to “prove” their skills/right-to-work to employers and employers to check them?
  1. How do we turn every village school/hall into a community life-long learning/training hub?
  1. How do we smooth the path from welfare to work and onto incremental career paths?
  1. How do we turn IR35 from a problem into an opportunity?

In each case the priorities cross-cut with topics like Cyber, Digital, Fintech and Engineering skills – where discussions by groups of experts competing for talent need to be linked to mainstream national and regional programmes, with messages that are intelligible and meaningful to outside audiences – from careers advisors and HR professionals to investors and politicians.

The issues of using village halls/schools will need to be extended to urban community centres and schools – but the guidance needed and communications channels with players are more complex. It  will take more time to identify who needs to be involved/consulted.

Sorting IR35 should be seen as the start of a radical simplification, in the context of:

  • G7/G20 moves to address corporate tax avoidance, and the need to
  • make the UK a more attractive location for those with scarce expertise who are already working on-line across multiple jurisdictions.

It should also enable a rise in competition and fall in charges to those, particularly in the public sector, who are currently reliant on inflexible tiers of subcontracts (each with its own charges) for outsourced/agency staff.

There is also an increasingly critical need to address the shortage of digital Infrastructure construction and maintenance skills that I first covered in this blog in June 2018. BT has greatly expanded its training programme since. but it still heavily reliant on contractors who have not. I am delighted to see that INCA (whose members compete with BT) is to relaunch its group looking at this area on December 14th . I have meeting lined up to try to broker co-operation in the context of an exercise to look at the needs of London, under the aegis of Central London Forward and others

Longer Term questions include:

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

This should build on all-party activities under 1) above, including in co-operation with players like IET to identify the success of what they are already doing/supporting.

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

I know that a number of UK MATs and UK-based global schools chains, as well as other course, qualification and training providers are interested in this area.

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

At least half a dozen Universities are looking this, singly or in partnerships with like-minded peers. Several have already expressed interest in comparing notes and/or co-opetition .,

  1. How do we unpack the Green Skills agendas, identifying points of leverage, business models and lead projects/partnerships.

I have found much interest in this area, but also much confusion as to what Green Skills might be targeted. Ideas ranged from schools and citizen science projects in response to Nadhim Zahawi’s funding for a Green Duke of Edinburgh Award (and other DfE proposals), through a wide range of technicians and professional training to high level R&D.

One of the participants has already agreed to consult colleagues to look at unpacking the Green Skills agendas (e.g. that for London) to identify points of leverage and business models: from citizen science and schools programmes, through crafts, technical and trade to professional and research, carbon sequestration, conservation, habitat enhancement and creation (including for mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain), energy efficiency, hydrogen, insulation, nuclear, pollution mitigation, recycling, regeneration etc.

Are you interested in helping?

 Please let me know what you would like to contribute and how?

You do not have to be Conservative to join the Conservative Policy Forum and participate in the National Discussion Groups, but we also expect to work with a range of partners, all-party and non-partisans. Those who have followed this blog will know that I am very happy to work with those in other parties on subjects where we share a common interest, while agreeing to differ where necessary.

I am particularly happy when, as with the original micros in schools programme over forty years ago, we can put the same programme into different rhetoric for officials to deliver regardless of who wins the election, central or local. Ministers come, ministers go, the departmental agenda rolls on unless and until …

Some of the ideas may well prove to be divisive when it comes down to practical recommendations, but none of the potential divides appears to be along party political lines.


Data Center
Data Management