Skills – the things that equip workers to play a productive role in the economy and be paid for it – are one of those rare things in discussions between business and government: something that everyone agrees are important and must be a top priority. While consensus in policy has not always translated into improvements on the ground for all young people in the past, the economic consequences of Covid-19 make it more important than ever to support young people better prepare for work and enable employers to improve their productivity.
Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England articulated the importance of skills development in his capacity as chair of the Industrial Strategy Council when he said recently:
“Deficiencies in the U.K. skills system are long-standing and deep-seated. The recovery from the Covid crisis will be faster and more sustainable if this system can be improved through partnership between workers, employers, training providers and government.”
In other words, improving the skills system will help the UK build back quicker and build back stronger.
So the Chancellor’s forthcoming public spending review and the Education Secretary’s skills white paper for England present promising opportunities to really make an impact this Autumn. Coming only a few months after Rishi Sunak’s Summer Statement and its focus on helping young people, and Gavin Williamson’s long-term agenda to reinforce the importance of apprenticeships and reform further education, which I argued mark a sea-change for technical education, there will be many people and organisations eager to influence what happens next on skills. The immediate priority will rightly continue to be a numbers game, helping as many young people as possible. However, I believe we need quality as well as quantity and one area of technical education which needs more attention is standards.
At WorldSkills UK, we train young people up to world-class standards. The employers we work with understand the business benefits of training to such high standards and we know the UK could do better across the board. The process of training Team UK and competing in the skill olympics every two years gives us the opportunity to benchmark performance against our peer network worldwide and then work with our partners in the UK to increase the quality of training and assessment back home.
We know that countries like Switzerland have had quality at the heart of their skills system for decades, whereas Russia has been transforming its skills system in the last five years with a focus on embedding WorldSkills standards. That’s why we have set up a new Centre of Excellence with NCFE to mainstream our world-class training methods into colleges across the country to support the development of 40,000 young people, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to achieve higher standards.
By focusing upcoming policy reforms and spending decisions on higher standards in skills we can help ensure the UK government is meeting key goals: helping more young men and women achieve their full potential in a world-leading technical education system; and have more high-performing workplaces leading to productivity growth, which remains the best way to increase living standards and level up economic opportunity across the UK. Further, higher standards in skills can also help plug, what Professor Paul Lewis from King’s College London calls the ‘missing middle’ – technicians qualified at levels 3-5 who can make important contributions to innovation on the factory floor, by both developing and helping to spread the use of new technologies, which are vital to developing a thriving science base and a low-carbon economy.
In short, a focus on higher standards in skills will hit the nail on the head for many of the Chancellor’s public spending review outcomes, all vital ingredients to help maintain and attract foreign inward investment and create jobs across the UK. Committing to a long-term approach to improving quality in apprenticeships and technical education means we will stand a much better chance of supporting the next generation develop the skills set and mindset they need to succeed in work and life and of creating the sustained economy recovery the Chancellor wants from his spending review.