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Employers should be the owners of the UK’s vocational education system

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Employer ownership

Over the past two decades governments of all hues have driven reform and expansion of the country's vocational skills system, with some notable successes.  But the fact is we've become less competitive globally on skills, and for many employers the 'system' is just too complex.

Within this landscape, though, there are examples of excellence.  In pretty much every case the defining characteristic is leadership from the employer, often in partnership with providers and other stakeholders, including trades unions.  Where skills interventions haven't worked it's usually because the government has ended up in the lead, incentivising employers to join government schemes.  Too often, when the incentive ceases, so does the training.

So how can we create a sustainable alternative?  The answer lies in recognising where we are already getting this right and understanding why that is.  Commissioners, including leaders of businesses large and small, union, university, college and third sector leaders from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have concluded that we need to take determined steps to encourage more employer ownership of this vital contributor to the future growth and economic renewal of the UK.

To set us on that path we need to change the way the system works. We must create more space and encouragement for employers to work within their supply chains, business clusters and with unions, colleges and training providers to develop the skills they need. The most powerful way to do this is to change the way funds flow through the system, and to place the responsibility and reward for investment more directly with employers.

I am pleased that the government has responded so positively to our advice, and agreed to commit up to £250m over the next two years to pilot this new direction. This will enable forward thinking employers, colleges and training providers to come forward with new approaches that are more effective in improving the skills and potential of new recruits and existing employees. We hope this pilot will work with the grain of industry sectors, reaching small and medium sized companies through the natural operation of the supply chain.

There is, of course, much work to be done to ensure this pilot is a success and that we learn from it.  Both outcomes are important, not just to improve the competitiveness of the sectors and businesses they touch, but to ensure we develop a sustainable approach to building vocational skills.  We need to restore the growth and prosperity of the economy, and developing the potential of our people is a key part of that process.

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  1. Comment by Declan McDonald posted on

    I have long suspected that the "UK" in the "UK Commission for Employment and Skills" is silent. This article merely proves it. Or perhaps, it should be the "England Commission for Employment and Skills" which would be more accurate. The £250m pilot is funded by the UK Government which has no remit for Skills in Scotland (which is where I am based) as this is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, which so far as I am aware as not committed to this pilot. So, the silent-UK CES is promoting this as a pilot to employers throughout the UK which means that I, as an educationalist working in Scotland, will have to yet again explain to Scottish employers that the silent-UK CES has cocked up again.

    Let's turn to the article. The argument seems to be that the "vocational" system is too complex and that employers don't understand it. Many consumers don't understand the banking system so does that mean that consumers should run the banking system in the UK? I think not.

    I work with employers on a daily basis and have heard this view expressed. But try getting employers to say what they really mean by "too complex" is an entirely different matter. Many of my employers say that they don't understand it. I don't understand how a car works but it doesn't stop me buying a car. I don't need to understand how it works, I just need to know that it does.

    So, they say, I don't know how to compare different qualifications. Well, they have a point there but with the advent of qualifications frameworks such as the SCQF, this will assist employers to understand how to compare different qualifications.

    Another argument is that they don't understand how funding works. Well, sorry, but that is not the fault of the qualification! Funding is a side issue. And here's a really radical thought - if employers want more of say in qualifications then let them pay for their development and for their delivery. After all, they "buy" qualifications because they believe that they improve the skills of their workforce which will improve their bottom line. This will then ensure that public funds can be spent on market failures, such as the NEETs.

    I find it incredulous that the article by Mr Mayfield fails to make any reference to Awarding Bodies! In my work, I have dealings with a number of awarding bodies, some very good, some less so. But the vast majority of awarding bodies have eons of experience in working with employers, i know so from my experience where some of the awarding bodies I work with bring together employers, colleges, training providers and universities. And in some cases, actual students!! If we omit awarding bodies then we are moving to a more European model, where most EU countries do not have awarding bodies. Plus, if there are no awarding bodies, then how will the system manage some degree of independence.

    Moving on, in my experience, one of the criticisms is that there are too many awarding bodies and that it is difficult to make comparisons. Some of my employers make this criticism even where we have a national awarding body. However, because other awarding bodies can operate in Scotland (and rightly so in my view), this adds to the confusion. If we therefore turn the voational qualification system over to the employers, are we seriously saying that this will make the qualifications system any clearer? I think not, we will end up the ASDA retail qualification, Sainsbury's Retail Qualification, Tesco Retail Qualification and so on. This will benefit the employers but how will this benefit the learner? Particularly if a learner wishes to move from one employer to another. Will they have to retake the employers' version of the qualification because they gained their original with eg Tesco? And who will ensure that the voice of the SMEs are heard in this brave new world? With all due respect, it will be dominate by the large multi-nationals.

    The article makes no reference to the poor individual so let's now turn to him. Within the current system, which does, let us not forget, permit employers to have their say, awarding bodies will consider the primary purpose of the qualifications when they design it, but they will also consider secondary purposes such as progression and articulation with HE. Will employers do this? I doubt it. I doubt that they even know that this is one of the purposes of qualifications.

    And finally, what is the vocational education system? Judging by the article, it is anything which is not delivered at school or university. So, a medical degree is not a vocational qualification? I can't think of any degree which is more vocational.

    I am all for involving employers in the design, development and delivery of qualifications. However, let us not forget that their primary purpose is to make, produce, service, sell, deliver a product which will produce a product. They are not qualification experts, it is not their primary purpose. If we must turn the whole VET system over to employers then watch the performance of the individual nations of the UK (yes, the silent-UK CES, there are FOUR, count them, FOUR nations in the UK) plummet down the international league tables.

    • Replies to Declan McDonald>

      Comment by Marjorie Griffiths posted on

      The majority of world leading businesses fund their own training programmes with no input from the government. Their programmes, people and performance are world class and their training is far, far better than anything they can get from local colleges. So to suggest businesses are incapable of training is a little naive. Just go and experience training at RR, BAE, Nissan, Toyota etc. And it is not just the big guys, check out Hi-tech Engineering and PPES both are SMEs and representative of numerous businesses that are committed to internal training.

      Over 9 months ago I contacted a local college to explore apprenticeships for a local business cluster. Umpteen meetings later we are no further forward. In the business world a company performing with that level of response would simply go bust. Yet the taxpayer is supporting poorly performing institutions to the tune of £billions a year!
      The assumption that business cannot design qualifications is also out of touch with reality. Most vocational qualifications have as a root a National Occupation Standard designed by Sector Skills Councils – supported by business people. That’s not to say they are good it is just that they are designed by business (sometimes a camel for a horse, sometimes a white elephant and sometimes a lemon.
      Let’s look at one qualification as an example a NVQ in BIT (NOS from Semta). Why does a qualification focused on business improvement have to have a sixth of its content dedicated to health and safety?

      Next the NOS is translated and charged differently by awarding bodies. Hence some providers will favour Awarding body X because they are easier to deal with (read easier to pass with) and/or they offer lower costs to be an approved centre and for certification. Money rules! Finally how “with it” are NOSs. Generally they lag what leading world class businesses need by some way.
      Hence to the point Sainsbury will invent their own standard etc. Well the news is big business already does. For years despite being on the board of Semta, Toyota never supported the BIT programme - they trained to their own (perceived higher) standard. The same goes for BAE and RR in many areas.
      As for business not being qualification experts we seem to get by with a free for all at University level where each university is its own awarding body. And strangely not all training is related to a qualification – in fact the vast majority of training spend is not on vocational qualifications at all.
      So finally “let us not forget that their (business) primary purpose is to make, produce, service, sell, deliver a product which will produce a product.” Well that says it all. If that is what the qualification and education sector truly think that is how business competes then no wonder we are stuck in the holy mess we are in and let’s scrap the whole FE system now. Businesses key asset and competitive weapon is its people and unless it takes responsibility for the development and motivation of each and every one of them then they will lack the competitive muscle and organisational force required to be on top of the game in today’s global business world.

  2. Comment by ukces posted on

    Dear Mr McDonald

    Thank you for your detailed comments in response to the announcement of the £250 million investment in employer ownership pilots to support skills growth in England.

    It would be really helpful if I could discuss the proposition with you in more detail to address the issues you raise. Please contact me via

    Thank you once again for your detailed comments. Best wishes.
    Judith Compton, Assistant Director

  3. Comment by Lynn Tomkins posted on

    Dear Marjorie

    I read your blog on the current system operating to support training and development for employers and you echo the views of other employers in that the translation of the NOS through to delivery by an FE provider is both complicated and difficult.

    The Employer ownership pilots offer a real opportunity to simplify, improve and add value to the system.

    Semta are working with a large number of employers to propose an Employer Ownership Pilot similar to the very successful pilot running in Wales through the Welsh Manufacturing Forum and Semta.

    I would be happy to discuss this with you further.

    Kind regards
    Lynn Tomkins
    UK Operations Director

  4. Comment by colin snape posted on

    This is an excellent idea, employers can use this funding much better than colleges and training providers we know our business's best.
    It would be good if we as employers could target youngsters to employ rather than having to advertise an apprenticeship that you want filled by a school leaver and have any age potentially apply the whole idea behind an apprenticeship is to take a school leaver and offer them an opportunity.


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