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We need to rise to the challenge of Brexit

To rise to the challenge of a post-Brexit Britain, we need a clear, accessible skills system, says Graham Hasting-Evans.

If nothing else, Brexit has revealed that the need for reform of our skills system is long overdue and it's now imperative we deliver a step-change in productivity - as well as improvements in quality.

The National Audit Office’s (September report 'Delivering value through apprenticeship reform' stated bluntly:

“The Office of National Statistics estimates that Germany, France and the USA are each about a third more productive than the UK”.
Clearly reform is urgently needed.

Creditably, the government has been trying to deliver critical changes and has some excellent policy ideas. Its 25 October announcement on how the apprenticeship levy will work included welcome references to productivity and social mobility, as well as support for 16 to 18 year-olds and others with special needs.

But after years of effort we are woefully short of what's really needed. At the end of last month (September) 42 new apprenticeship standards were ready for delivery, with an Apprenticeship Assessment Organisation (AAO) appointed - against a likely need for 2,000 across the whole economy.

Based upon October’s statistics, there are 2,450 apprenticeships registered with an AAO appointed and 1,790 where there is no AAO.

Put this against an annual target for apprenticeship completions of 600,000 and the fact that reform of technical qualifications is not planned to start until 2018, and it's easy to see that despite excellent policy ideas and much effort, there is a long way to go.

There have also been significant implementation problems. We need to deal with these face-on and radically speed up progress.

The government is poised to embark on an initiative under the Post-16 Skills Plan to fundamentally change technical education and qualifications. Clearly we do not want this initiative to face the same problems encountered by reformed apprenticeships.

Put simply - productivity improvements must be a key outcome of all the reforms.

Consider this: each year we replace just over two per cent of the workforce through the education system while recruiting around 1.6 per cent through gross immigration, losing half of this through emigration.

It means at any point the vast majority of the productive workforce has been there for some while so investment focused on the education system, including reformed apprenticeships for young people and the Post-16 Skills Plan, is clearly long-term.

Plainly, if we are to achieve early benefits in productivity and social mobility we must invest in the existing workforce - through short-term investment in up-skilling, literacy, numeracy and management development as well as apprenticeships.

We must commit to a single skills enhancement strategy, underpinned by a single skills system, which embraces all the various initiatives, while ensuring integral productivity improvement and social mobility, including development for the existing workforce.

We must establish a complete list of apprenticeship standards and technical qualifications needed, based on real career pathways in our key sectors, which get people to a 'first-base job' from which they can develop. In other words we need to concentrate on producing the doctor, leaving the brain surgeon to develop as a specialist. Done well, it should mean we can cut the number of qualifications and apprenticeship standards to a more manageable number.

We also need to prioritise the apprenticeships and technical qualifications that will generate the biggest improvements in productivity and, as a matter of urgency, set up a single organisation that can drive through the changes. The government says this will be the Institute for Apprenticeships and it has published the Bill so it will become the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

If we get the skills enhancement strategy and underpinning system right, productivity and social mobility will rise - and that has to be a big step towards a successful economy.