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David Hughes: My four-point plan to fill the skills gap

David Hughes
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“My number one target for more powers is to take over skills funding in London from the Learning and Skills Council,” were the first words I heard from then-Mayor of London Ken Livingstone (Lab) in 2005.

That was on my first day as London regional director for the LSC. It got worse as he threatened to sack me and all of the senior staff in a bid to get his hands on the £1.7bn LSC budget.

Mr Livingstone was keen to ensure Londoners got the skills they needed to prosper in a highly-competitive labour market. His advisers believed control of the budget would allow them to shape the supply side. In the end, the compromise was to establish the London Skills and Employment Board, which was dominated by employers and chaired by the mayor. I was the key adviser, the purse-holder and in some ways the whipping boy. I was accountable for the budget nationally and criticised locally for not delivering ‘what employers need’ and for trying ‘to control colleges’.

The board had some success, but overall it struggled to make an impact for three reasons.

First, because the LSC was accountable to ministers and national policy and rules, much like the Education and Skills Funding Agency is now, so change was constrained.

Second, because there was no clear articulation about what was needed from that £1.7bn investment; nearly everyone believed it was being spent wrongly, but nobody could explain how it should be spent. My questions when board members and others asked for change was simple: “What will you say to the one million students when you shut their course? Why is their learning wrong? What learning would be better and why?”

The third reason was that supply side direction is meaningless unless students, apprentices and employers can be persuaded to invest their time and resources. Even if the board had been able to direct funding to the learning it deemed to be most important, that would not be enough. People would have had to be supported to participate. Their demand is what always drives the system. When their demand shifts, colleges respond.

Thirteen years and several governments later, we seem to be having the same debate. The desire from elected mayors and combined authorities for skills devolution is very understandable. Helping people to realise their potential is central to wider social policy goals that many of us hold dear: strong and inclusive growth, healthier communities, social and economic justice, tolerance and democratic participation. Colleges want to help achieve this.

It’s important to place the devolution debate into the context of the overall challenge we face in England on education and skills.

First, we have been for too long obsessed with three-year undergraduate residential degrees as the gold standard, at the expense of opportunities to learn at Levels 3, 4 and 5, where most skills shortages are.

Second, productivity stagnated in 2008, so we are now a long way behind competitors; better skills are a key part of the solution, but that is not enough.

Third, social mobility is still very poor, with parental educational achievement too strong a driver of children’s achievements in education and work.

Devolution can help address all three of these longstanding problems. Councils have a great opportunity, alongside elected mayors, to partner with colleges as community-focused institutions, which make an enormous contribution to local prosperity and wellbeing, but which are also desperate to do more with the right investment.

Colleges are the main providers of education for 16 to 18-year-olds and support around 1.3 million adults in England. However, they have been hit harder than any other part of the education system and starved of the investment needed for a world-class education and skills system. The funding for adult education and skills, for instance, is half of what it was in 2008.

Here are my four steps to successful reform:

  1. Build a new social partnership with colleges, employers, unions and community organisations and focus on a long-term strategy.
  2. Develop a strategy that recognises the culture change we need in society and in work; a new culture of lifelong learning and the need to support people to train several times through 50-year careers. Appreciate the most powerful lever is that of influencing demand; explaining, advising and sign-posting people to understand the links between education and training and job prospects will do more to achieve change than any movement of control of the money, institutional changes or new buildings.
  3. All parties – government, employers and people – must be persuaded to invest to achieve that we need: new vehicles, incentives and opportunities.
  4. Take a simple shared-risk, shared-destiny approach that does not revolve around blame.

This is not an easy set of challenges to face up to, so let’s do so together, recognising that we all have a part to play.

David Hughes, chief executive, Association of Colleges

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