I’m going to speak at The Spectator’s Skilling Britain Conference today. This is what I plan to say.
If you ask policy makers what has gone wrong with skills policy in the past they will undoubtedly give you a variety of different and complex answers. They might say that the approach to skills development was too classroom based or that it wasn’t classroom based enough. They might say we need more qualifications or less qualifications that are harder, or easier.
In all of this they are wrong. The problem with the skills system has always been PEOPLE. People who make bad decisions, people who don’t spot opportunities, people who can’t keep up with the relentless twist and turns of government skills policy and who can’t remember what an NVQ or a level 6 qualification is. People like a 14 year old boy dropping out of chemistry because he doesn’t like the teacher or a 55 year old woman who doesn’t have the confidence retrain after being made redundant.
We’ll never build an effective skills policy until we do something about people and the decisions that they make.
What skills do these people need to be learning? Well clearly they need to be learning the skills that are required to do a job. But we know that work is always changing so they also need to be learning how to learn the skills that they need to do a job. In fact it is more complex that that because both work and learning are always changing and so they also need the skills to learn how to find out what work is needed and the skills to find out how they can access learning. They also need a the skills to make complex calculations about whether a particular course is worth the price it commands.
We can call this last bundle of skills career management skills and I think that they are central to the operation of an effective skills system. They are also essential to people to enable them to live happy, productive, fulfilled lives in which they make the most of their potential.
It is useful to recognise two different groups of people who we might support in different ways to build their careers.
First we have young people who have yet to enter the labour market. Whether they are in school, college or university it is essential that they get an opportunity to find out about the world of work, to experience it and to think about where they might enter it. It is also important that they think about how they manage their careers and respond to the changes that they will inevitably experience.
The current government has not done right by this group. It has closed down Connexions. It has saddled schools with a responsibility for career guidance that they did not ask for, are not ready for and arguably cannot perform with impartiality. They have also removed the statutory requirements for career education and work-related learning or work experience. This sends out the message that school is not connected to work and that work is not worth thinking about or preparing for.
It is important that we do better than this in the future.
The second group is those of us who have already left school, college and university. We might we working or unemployed, recently redundant or returning from a period of caring responsibilities. Our career building is ongoing and our need for career support is lifelong.
For this group the current government has done much better. It has created a National Careers Service, which has much potential. They need to invest in it, extend its reach and crucially TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
So where do we go from here.
We need to ensure that the skills system attends to the choices and career building of individuals. The provision of a National Careers Service is therefore a crucial element of what is required. I would like to suggest three brief policy ideas that the current government could adopt to make it fit for purpose.
1) Resource and support the NCS to work with schools and colleges and to provide them with the support and capacity needed to ensure that every person in education and training gets the career management skills that they need for their lifetime.
2) Resource and support the NCS to work with all adults and not just those who are out of work. Central to this is building partnerships with employers, trade unions and community organisations to ensure that everyone has access to career support.
3) Run a campaign encouraging people to think about and invest in their career development. Remind them that they have a lifetime to build a career and that it is never too late to improve their skills or realise their potential. A key part of this would be encouraging them to make use of the fantastic resource that the NCS offers.
If we are able to do these relatively modest things we will be on the way to creating a skills system that works. It will work better because we have actively built in the careers education, advice and lifelong guidance that is required for people to effectively navigate this skills system and to realise their potential.