Constant change over the past three decades has damaged the UK’s skills system, according to a major new report published yesterday by the City & Guilds Group.

‘Sense & Instability: three decades of skills and employment policy’, scrutinises the policies of successive administrations on skills and employment. The report draws on insight from senior civil servants and experts in the skills and employment industry. It has broad political, employer and sector support, including Lord Adonis, the CBI, the Association of Colleges (AoC), the 157 Group, TUI UK and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP).

With less than eight months to go until the election, City & Guilds now challenges all parties to address the report’s main recommendations:

  • Better long-term planning for skills policy that is linked to long-term economic forecasts
  • Greater coherence between central government policymaking and local implementation
  • Greater scrutiny of changes to skills policy to deliver better taxpayer value for money
  • Better checks and balances to remove the risk of politics influencing policy decisions

Chairman of City & Guilds, Sir John Armitt, said: “They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It would be madness to ignore the evidence of three decades of skills and employment policy – yet our politicians have failed to learn from the past. This report is a wake-up call to all policymakers. I urge all parties – irrespective of political colours or ideology – to look and learn.”

Neil Carberry, CBI Director for Employment & Skills said: “The education and skills landscape is complex, with an array of new initiatives. This report from City & Guilds is a welcome and much-needed call for clarity and coherence, and should be used to kick start an era of policy stability in skills provision, with a real focus on putting the needs of our economy at the heart of vocational learning.”

Lord Adonis, Shadow Infrastructure Minister, said: “Everyone responsible for policymaking and implementation must continue to challenge and improve the system. This report rightly highlights the need for better checks and balances on policy making so that where there is an intervention by Government, or a change of direction, it is grounded in a strong evidence base that takes into consideration the lessons of the recent past. I hope that this paper begins a debate that is long overdue.”

The report reveals some startling facts:

  • There have been 61 Secretaries of State responsible for skills and employment policy in the last three decades (compared with 18 for schools policy and 16 for higher education).
  • Between them they produced 13 major Acts of Parliament.
  • The policy area has flipped between departments or been shared with multiple departments no fewer than 10 times since the 1980s.
  • Consistent churn has created a collective amnesia and growing lack of organisational memory at political and official levels.
  • Sustained disruption in the system, from machinery of Government change and Ministerial reshuffles, to low level policy ‘tinkering’ and wholesale system-wide change, has consistently and often negatively impacted implementation in key areas.

The report comes as the UK faces a major skills crisis. In a recent report, the CBI found that 58% of UK businesses worry they won’t have enough highly-skilled staff available for their future needs. This is a particular problem in key growth areas for UK Plc; 87,000 new engineers are needed every year to meet industry demand, and the Institute of Engineering and Technology found that 59 per cent of its members are concerned that a shortage of engineers could be a threat to their businesses.

The ageing workforce also puts further pressure on businesses to find employees to fill entry level vacancies. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of people aged over 60 in the UK is expected to increase by 13% between 2013 and 2020.

Commenting on the report, Mikki Draggoo, Head of Corporate Relations at the City & Guilds Group said: “We’ve seen politicians from every party making pledges about what they will do to close the UK’s skills gap. But a successful system is too important to sacrifice for a headline that will be recycled as yesterday’s news. The best action politicians can take to help employers get the skills they need is to think carefully before taking action. Stable, long-term planning is the key to success here. Learning from past successes and mistakes and giving new policies a chance to mature will yield much better, long-lasting results – and ultimately sustainable economic growth.”

Commenting on the report, Peter Lauener, Chief Executive of the Education Funding Agency said: “The elusive goal of policy has been to develop a skills system that gives opportunities for many young people and adults and the skills that employers and the economy need. The main achievement of this period has been to broaden access but we still need to improve quality, make the system easy to understand and build an inseparable bond between skills and employers.”