We must act on skills consensus now

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This blog was first published on People Management.

There are few things the political parties can agree on at the best of times. That's a pity – as we'd probably be a lot more successful as a country and economy if there were. But across the political spectrum there is now a growing consensus on what the priorities on skills should be – driving up education standards in key subjects, refocusing apprenticeships on higher level skills and, creating a market in training where the customer is king.

At a time when we need to pull on every available lever to promote economic growth, there is also recognition that ensuring business has access to the right skills is one of the key routes to stronger economic growth.

The leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, has grasped this mantle and committed in his conference speech to a so-called technical baccalaureate, as well as to improving the general standards of numeracy and literacy, proposals that will be welcomed by business if they can be delivered.

So where do we go from here?

For their part, manufacturers will welcome proposals that students study maths and English up to the age of 18.

But reforming qualifications must never be a substitute for a relentless drive to raise standards in key subjects such as English, maths and science throughout the education system.

A forthcoming major EEF survey on skills will show that three-quarters of companies put ability in maths, science and English as their top priority in recruiting an apprentice. Furthermore, given that three-quarters of the organisations surveyed also say that lack of technical skills is a barrier to recruiting at all levels, they will welcome the focus on a ‘gold standard' of technical training.

So far, so good.

However, while industry welcomes the opportunity to have a say over how training funds are spent, something it has long campaigned for, it will fear that these proposals come with strings attached.

In particular, there will be concern at plans to unnecessarily complicate public procurement by linking contract awards to apprenticeship programmes.

Care must also be taken to ensure that proposals to introduce training levies are only brought forward where they have full and clear support from their industry.

To give the leader of the opposition his credit, he has committed to a consultation on these proposals so that, should they ever become reality through government, it is hoped any potential conflicts could be ironed out. However, given the cross-party consensus and the importance of this key issue, why should we have to wait for a potential change of government to deliver this. All the main parties should now work together to deliver it as a key route to growth.

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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