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The Brexit technical skills challenge

06 Jul 2017

Getting to grips with Britain’s shortage of technical skills has never been more important.

Last week the Centre for Progressive Capitalism put on a panel discussion considering the challenges ahead for technical skills. Many of the issues and proposals echo what we hear regularly from member leading to our key asks on teachers and the apprenticeship levy in our priorities for government.

They set the context saying that “the UK has long since suffered from an ineffective system of technical education that, by the current government’s own admission, ‘does not deliver either for individuals, for the skills needs of employers, or for the wider economy’. Symptomatic of this stubborn failure of public policy are the growing technical skills gaps that continue to act as a drag on the dynamism, inclusivity and growth of the UK economy. And now, with the challenges presented by Brexit edging closer, getting to grips with Britain’s shortage of technical skills has never been more important.”

The opening remarks highlighted some of the ways Brexit and the skills agenda are linked, including:

Brexit highlighted a divide in life chances.

We have been able to mask our skills problem with free movement.

Anything that is bad for public finances will be bad for Further Education.

Migration clearly plays a part in meeting the UK’s skills needs. With Brexit, the current flows, routes and processes will change. Ending free movement will likely unearth some skills gaps that have been hidden in recent years. Skills shortages and gaps will need to be carefully and closely forecast and reviewed. With the winding-up of the UKCES, there isn’t an obvious group to do it. The panel suggested part of the answer will have to be better join up between the Home Office and the Department for Education.

Although the event was pitched in the context of Brexit, the discussion focussed on the domestic skills system and associated policy and funding decisions. This issue attracts wide interest. Those in the room included representatives from Research organisations and hardware companies, trade unions and education providers.

The discussion reflected the seemingly enduring political challenge facing technical skills in the UK. There was agreement that this is not a party-political issue, as parties of all shades want to see an effective technical skills system in the UK. There was also agreement that for it to work, whatever system is decided on we need to stick at it for a generation. And that is where the challenge comes in – trying to settle on what system to stick at.

Across the panel there was a sense that the apprenticeship levy could be a helpful tool that businesses support in principle. However, it needs a bit of work. Issues were raised around how it will work across the nations of the UK, how quality will be incentivised rather than just quantity, how it will be tuned to ensure skills gaps are tackled, and how it sits alongside other skills provision as the non-levy skills budget has been reduced.

Contrary to public discourse, apprenticeships are only part of the answer. There was a lot of support in the room for a skills and training tax credit which could work alongside the apprenticeship levy to support and incentivise employers to invest in the training of their staff beyond apprenticeships.

The introduction of T-levels has been hailed by the government as the answer to achieving parity of esteem with A-levels. The panel suggested the key will be progression. What do they lead on to in terms of further training and employment? For that to happen, the starting point must be well resourced, quality assured qualifications, with teachers equipped to deliver them.

In reality more questions were raised than answers proposed, but the good news is there are lots of organisations and individuals very keen to work together to improve technical skills education and training. That isn’t new, but perhaps Brexit has sharpened the focus.