Monday, May 8, 2017

Getting off the Skills Merry-Go-Round  

 Rachel Burnham writes: The overwhelming key message, from the CIPD’s new report on skills in the UK, is the need for us to get off the ‘skills merry-go-round’ of reports and enquiries into the poor state of the UK’s workforce skills, followed by re-organisation of the various bodies involved, development of ‘here today - gone tomorrow’ policies and initiatives, gradual abandonment of said policies, only for this to be followed in a couple of years by a fresh round hand-wringing and more reports and enquiries, which start a new cycle of poorly thought through re-organisation and policy development.  

The report argues that ‘Bringing stability to the system is paramount. The employer response is almost bound to be sub-optimal given the in-coherence of the policy development process.’   This is pretty strong stuff, coming from the CIPD and gives a sense of just what a mess the whole national skills policy is in.

The report touches on the almost constant state of change in national skills policy and institutional frameworks over the past 30 years – over that time the report reminds us that we have had over 65 Secretaries of State and 11 changes of departmental responsibility.   So, if you feel your head is spinning and can’t quite think who has responsibility for what when you think about recent national skills initiatives, you are not alone!

My involvement in this field goes back over that 30 year period.  For my sins, I was part of a National Advisory Board for the Manpower Services Commission during the time when the Commission oversaw the introduction and then rapid expansion of the Youth Training Scheme (YTS).  This was introduced to provide ‘quality’ training for young people as they started working life, but with the rapid expansion, all aspirations to quality very quickly went out of the window, in the pressure to meet targets for growth – this sounds awfully familiar to the current position around apprenticeships.   I was a youth representative from the British Youth Council at that time and having previously been on a YOP (Youth Opportunities Programme) as a WEEP (Work Experience on Employer’s Premises) was deemed particularly suitable to provide advice on the new youth training scheme.  If you have been involved in any of these programmes you will know how three, four and even five letter abbreviations proliferate! 

CIPD’s new report ‘From‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’: Making the UK’s skills system world class’ by Ian Brinkley and Elizabeth Crowley was launched just a couple of weeks ago and is available from the CIPD website.   The report is not for the faint-hearted!   It is not an easy read, but it is all the better for that, as it attempts to honestly make sense of where we are now, why we need to tackle the skills agenda and to put forward some genuinely useful recommendations.  

It is good to see that the report focuses on skills, rather than on just the acquirement of qualifications.  The report identifies that the ‘skills’ it is focusing on are primarily communication skills, numeracy & analytical skills and digital skills, notably using computers to solve problems. It also refers to relating to customers and clients, being caring and being creative.  And the report explains in some detail why the distinction between skills and qualifications is important. Whilst I was pleased to see that the report moved beyond just looking at qualifications, which has been the traditional approach in the UK in policy discussions, I still have concerns that this is too narrow a focus in the skills considered and doesn’t consider the wider range of skills that organisations need for success.  

The report explores the evidence for how we compare internationally on skills development in the UK and also looks at the knotty problem of assessing if we have the skills needed for the requirements of jobs.   There is a long section of the report which examines sometimes conflicted evidence for whether there is under or over qualification in the UK workforce (or possibly both simultaneously).  This is the most difficult part of the report to make sense of because there is no one agreed methodology for assessing this and the different methods in use are giving different pictures.

The report sets out very detailed and thoughtful recommendations on quite a range of areas across this skills agenda from the need for stability, to a need to re-balance emphasis on university education with vocational paths for young people, to the need for quality career guidance.   I think the report is to be commended for these suggestions and the willingness to go beyond easy headlines.

I do have a hesitation.  I still feel some disconnect between the emphasis and language used when skills policy is discussed, as in this report, compared to the ongoing discussions I am involved in about L&D in organisations.   For example, although this report gives a welcome emphasis to skills development, the focus is primarily on qualifications and on ‘training’ to address this development.  So, the approaches to learning within the report, don’t seem to be picking up on current thinking about workplace learning and performance support.  The report does briefly touch on informal learning, and so I would love to explore how much this is just a difference of language or whether there are real differences in emphasis here.   At the same time, I wonder how many people involved in those discussions about modern workplace learning are also thinking about the challenges explored in this report.   It does feel at times as though two very different conversations are being held in parallel, using different language.  I would love to hear from other people on this topic, so do get in touch and let me know what you think. 

If you are interested in finding out more about the issues raised in this report and if you are participating in the CIPD’s L&D Show this week, why not go along to the presentations on the CIPD stand at 15.30 when these issues will be explored.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the use of digital skills for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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