Using the Local Skills Improvement Plans to bring UK Skills Policy into the 21st Century

Buried somewhere with Sir Kier Starmer’s promise to “take back control”, from Westminster as well as Brussells, is a pledge to devolve skills policy.  Meanwhile the current Government has begun to do just that with the Local Skills Improvement Plans which all parts of England must submit to the Secretary of State for Education by the end of May. Nearly 40 Designated Employer Representative Bodies across the nine regions of England are now working with Local Authorities, FE, HE and others  to agree their needs over the next few years and how to meet them.

Most plans are expected to be agreed in time for launch in September when UCAS is due expand to cover Apprenticeships not just degrees.   Given that around half of those who applied to UCAS last year were also interested in apprenticeships this is likely to at least decimate future UK applications for full-time degrees.

The proportion will depend on how many employers plan to expand their use of degree-linked apprenticeships to upgrade the skills of their existing workforce as well as well as to recruit trainees of all ages to earn while they learn. Hence the reason many Universities are interested in getting involved with their local LSIPs. It also happens that, provided the set-up costs are covered by a critical mass of employers, degree-linked apprentices are proving more profitable to the department delivering them, (if not necessarily the University as a whole), than full-time UK students

Are you involved?

It not, stop bleating about skills shortages or the short falls in Government policy, let alone whether it will be better with a different political tribe presiding over our over-centralised, steam-age nation state.

Get involved with your local skills improvement plan to ensure that it is both relevant to your needs now and is capable of evolving to meet your needs as they change.

That said, the big problem with skills needs is that, even when there is an agreed taxonomy, they change over time, in ways that were not predicted. I first addressed this problem 40 years ago in Learning for Change with what was condemned then by one reviewer as “a cheats charter” but is now, with tools like ChatGPT becoming, fashionable.

Four years ago, when I handed over the DPA Skills Group, I drafted a paper on the current state of the challenges with regard to assessing the skills in current, let alone future, demand. Below are the preface and key points. The draft was widely reviewed but never published on-line. I would be pleased to provide the text to anyone who will put it on-line for their own and other audiences.

Last year the DfE Skills and Productivity Board published a Review of skills taxonomies . This addresses one of the key problems and recommended using the US Occupational Information Network with the definitions regarding digital skills expanded in line with the Skills Framework for the Information Age .

It is understood that many of the LSIP teams have commissioned Burning Glass to analyse UK recruitment advertising using these taxanomies. Meanwhile, however, most UK recruitment agencies and commercial training providers use Vacancysoft to plan recruitment exercises and training programmes, including to update and upgrade the skills of those already in the work force.

How do you forecast your needs for skills and/or those of your customers/suppliers?

How are you planning to get these reflected in the Local Skills Improvement Plan which will be used to plan local FE/HE provision?

How are you working with your trade associations and/or professional bodies to provide sectoral guidance and support to those working on local plans?

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Towards a 21st Century Skills Policy

Headline Recommendations for Government include:

  1. Apply industry-strength market research and simulation techniques to all education and training policy initiatives to help assess the relevance of the objectives and likelihood of success.
  2. Change the “target” from 50% “to go to university” to over 50% (including public sector employees) to be engaged in life-long learning from technician to graduate/post graduate level.
  3. All academically or professionally accredited education, training (including recruitment) and assessment to be allowable against tax (personal and/or corporate), whether or not relevant to current employment.
  4. Apprentice grant and levy scheme and other tax allowances/incentives to be extended to cover all professionally accredited training or technical/professional skills acquisition or development costs, including talent attraction, assessment, pastoral care, supervision, schools support etc.


In 1982, at a seminar for the UK Technical Press[1], I said that “a single career change may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution”. Today we can see the spread of annually updated “certificates to practice” from medical consultants and aerospace engineers to other areas where proof of current competence is essential. Meanwhile “digital marketing or security practitioners can become seriously out of date within months unless they spend time each week keeping up to date.[2]” The main political parties have recognised the challenge of change. Last year the Conservatives called for inputs on “Skills and Training for the 21st Century[3] “. Labour called for responses to their “Learning society[4] ” discussion paper.  Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s FE/HE funding review[5] is due to report shortly.

On the positive side, a wealth of globally networked online materials and assessment tools (many using artificial intelligence, from the simple to the sophisticated) now enables teachers and learners to keep abreast of change, improving personal competence, motivation and performance.

Meanwhile thought leaders are split between those who believe the threat to jobs may be less than that to the status of academic values and knowledge-based professions and those who welcome the opportunity to pass intellectual, as well as physical, drudgery to machines.

What is certain is that our current consultation and planning mechanism for setting skills definitions and standards, let alone for forecasting the numbers who need to acquire which skills, to what level, cannot keep pace.

We need to look again at policy and funding frameworks and processes that have changed little in a hundred years and to allow schools, colleges and universities to give teachers and pupils the freedom to follow good practice as it evolves, without waiting for semi-mandatory national “guidance” and funding.

Key Points

  1. Analyses of the reasons for the voting patterns in the 2016 referendum and 2017 General Election indicate that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, it is no longer politically acceptable for the UK to rely on imported talent for the skills needed by employers while saddling so many voters and their children with debts they may never repay. It is little wonder that the study into FE and HE funding launched by the Prime Minister last year[6] is taking so long. The issues go well beyond funding. The pace of change with regard to the skills in demand and our ability to use technology to help assess, educate and train raw talent have outstripped the ability of public sector policy, funding and accreditation processes to respond to the resultant challenges and opportunities.
  2. The mass deployment of online learning, expert systems and artificial intelligence means memory and logic are losing status, as did the ability to read and write when literacy became commonplace.[7] Basic digital disciplines (such as coding and systems thinking) change slowly, if at all. But the application skills in demand change faster than we can agree a curriculum. They also change faster than we can agree academically acceptable accreditation of the knowledge and competence expected by employers or specify and deliver publicly funded courses and qualifications. The consequent pressures pose an existential challenge to traditional educational hierarchies and academic structures, not just planning and funding processes.
  3. There has been a dramatic shortening (from years to months) of the time necessary to assemble mass market or customised online learning programmes, many using “AI” and gamification to enable personalised motivation, delivery, practice and assessment. Skills which used to take months or years to master can now be acquired within days or weeks by those with the necessary attitude and aptitude. The gap between the expected delivery standards and timescales of industry and commerce and those of academic accreditation bodies are widening, equally dramatically.
  4. There are also tensions between processes (from “T” levels through Apprenticeship or Degree Standards) intended to meet the needs of specific sectors, trades or professions and the growing use of “intelligent systems” (accessing whatever body of knowledge is needed) to enable digital users to cross disciplinary boundaries. The current focus on national “standards” needs to embrace processes to facilitate customised cross-boundary skills development, mixing pre-existing and/or shared modules from an evolving variety of sources, national and international.
  5. The falling proportion of the population who can now expect one career (let alone job) for life brings into question the focus of education policy on academic league tables, national curricula and examinations designed to filter pupils for full-time university degree courses. The availability of massive libraries of materials over reliable school broadband should be used to empower teachers to “educate” all with the basic skills and motivations for a world of modular, flexible, technician and graduate level, lifelong “earn while you learn”. We should also make is easier to take time out (sabbatical or career break) to “enjoy learning for its own sake” and change career, occupation and vocation as aspirations and the employment on offer evolve.
  6. There are growing pressures on universities and colleges to improve teaching and pastoral care as they compete for the student loans and apprentice funding of a shrinking pool of school-leavers. The winners will not just be those who work with employers (local, national and international) on vocational skills. They will include those who work with sports, leisure, cultural and travel operations to offer  lifelong learning activities which support/exploit freedom of choice and work-life balance: from career change, through family responsibilities to post retirement “learning for pleasure”.
  7. At one end of society we can see well-known Public Schools and Oxbridge Colleges, masters of survival, involving their alumni with careers events which offer world-class globe-trotting apprenticeships, with residential periods in best of breed research centres around the world.
  8. At the other end, far-sighted councils are working with full fibre broadband operators to provide affordable access to their housing estates which enable for the socially and educationally excluded to access world class education and training programmes, supported by teachers based on their local school/college.
  9. We need policies at every level which make it much easier to embrace change to the benefit of the whole of society.


  1. Turning the pace of change from a challenge to an opportunity. 7

1.1 Tomorrow came yesterday. 7

1.2 The pieces are in place for a world class industrial strategy for educational technology. 8

1.3 But we also need a joined up strategy for vocational skills and employment. 8

1.4 Both require cross-boundary co-operation. 9

1.5 The challenges are to traditional academic structures not just processes. 9

1.6 Variety is the spice of life – one size will not fit all 10

  1. Predicting the skills of the future in ways that help meaningful decisions. 12

2.1 Planning consortia, consultation and market research. 13

2.2 Segmentation: from expert, through professional, technician and application to user. 15

2.3 The shape-shifting of skills boundaries across trades, professions and disciplines. 16

2.4 Many basic attitudes, aptitudes and disciplines change slowly if at all 18

2.5 Coding, robotics, systems thinking and data analytics (the basis of AI) are core. 19

2.6 The rate of change in technician and applications skills is accelerating. 19

2.7 Growing the talent pool 20

2.8 Is “digital literacy” still needed, as opposed to literacy, numeracy and social skills?. 21

  1. A national strategy based on local access to global skills. 22

3.1 Facilitate rapid, flexible, local response within national planning/funding frameworks. 22

3.2 Use a world class utility infrastructure to create the critical mass for a world class market. 22

3.3 The linkage and interoperability of learning and competence modules is critical 23

3.4 So too is building on the best of what already works. 24

3.5 Enabling local access to international programmes and globally recognised qualifications. 25

3.6 Supporting faster UK response cycles to emerging/changing demand. 26

3.7 “Liberate” universities, colleges and schools to serve as local, national or global support and delivery hubs in world class life-long learning, quality control and/or research networks. 27

3.8 Change the apprentice levy and grant into an accredited skills levy and rebate. 28

  1. Empowering informed choice. 29

4.1 The growing range of choice. 29

4.2 Help pupils, parents, adults and employers to identify and understand the alternatives. 30

  1. Removing the obstacles to painless change. 32

5.1 Facilitating response to the changing economics of retrain versus recruit. 32

5.2 Prioritise tax-free training over the “prevention of abuse”. 33

5.3 Replace “challenges” by “funded experiments” and publicise success. 33

5.4 Raise the status of apprenticeships. 34

5.5 Link skills policy to immigration policy. 35

6 Recommendations. 36

6.1 For employers and recruiters. 36

6.2 For education and training providers. 36

6.3 For trade unions and professional bodies. 37

6.4 For central government and its departments and agencies. 37

6.5 For local government. 39

6.6 For voters. 39


[1] “Training for Multi-career lives”: included in “Intelligent Systems: The unprecedented opportunity” – Ellis Horwood ISBN 0-470-27501-4







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