We must hold politicians to account to develop UK skills

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Government and opposition MPs agree over the need for stronger skills – it’s just getting them to act that’s the problem.

Making sense of the party conference season in these tumultuous times has been more difficult than usual. But, amid the grandstanding and glad-handing, one of the most telling themes to emerge from the numerous speeches and fringe sessions I attended this year was that of skills: specifically, how to reform and improve the quality and provision of skills in the UK.

The positive news from the party conferences was that politicians are actively engaged in this debate. Across the board, there is an acknowledgement that sustainable economic growth will only be achieved by sufficient investment in the country’s skills infrastructure. There is also a widespread acceptance that current approaches are not working.

It’s clear that some recent policies have, despite the best intentions, failed to deliver on their promises. While the introduction of the vocational T-levels has been perceived by some as a welcome step, the UK’s economic challenges and the impact of the increased cost of living being felt by businesses require a broader menu of solutions that provide appropriate levels of funding and flexibility.

Evidence of the shortcomings can be seen in the Apprenticeship Levy. Introduced in 2017, the Levy was feted as a way for the Government to support business investment in a whole range of work skills by sharing the cost burden. The mechanics of the Levy have been the subject of much debate, but the foundational idea of incentivising employers to invest in upskilling and reskilling workers has a great deal of merit.

As a champion of open-access qualifications, AAT is fully supportive of apprenticeships. We want to see them opening new routes to successful careers in finance. Yet, overall, apprenticeships fail to give help and opportunities to those who most need them. A Social Mobility Commission report from 2020 states the situation bluntly:

“The apprenticeship levy, introduced in 2017, has disproportionately funded higher-level apprenticeships for learners from more advantaged communities, rather than those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, who would benefit more.”

“Disadvantage gaps exist at every stage of the apprenticeship journey, from initial selection of candidates by employers to the quality of training disadvantaged apprentices get. Geography is also an issue. Lack of opportunities in deprived areas can force disadvantaged learners to undertake expensive and difficult journeys to reach work.”

Further Education (FE) is another area with an unsatisfactory report card. FE and HE (Higher Education) should be contrasting but complementary pathways leading to successful careers. Instead, FE is deprived of investment in comparison to HE, is beset with struggles to recruit and retain teaching staff, and, unfairly, is widely viewed as second-best.

It’s vital that FE and HE enjoy parity of esteem. That includes levelling up the funding available and the promotion of FE in schools, colleges and in business. Legislators must find ways of making further education a viable and more widely accessible option.

Again, MPs are willing to support this. YouGov research commissioned by AAT showed two-thirds of MPs (66%) believe that FE learners should be funded on a similar level to HE students.

The problem is that political expediency is the enemy of progress. A long-term skills policy requires time and effort and is not as attention-grabbing as a hike in public spending or a cut in taxes. It is tempting for new administrations to do little more than close down or rebrand what the last government did as a shortcut to ‘progress’ rather than properly grapple with the problem.

As an organisation committed to equality and opportunity, AAT will press the case for sustained and coordinated action. We need a joined-up approach that brings in legislators, employers, professional bodies and learners themselves to develop clear and sustainable solutions.

To that end, we are in the process of bringing together a collection of key players in the skills and education arena to help us identify the ingredients for a sustained breakthrough. Through this next phase of our ‘Time for change’ campaign activity, we intend to keep skills firmly on the agenda.

Adam Harper is AAT's Director of Professional Standards & Policy..

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