Growth Through People confirms what we have now known for some time – vocational education is not only high up on the education agenda, but for the first time in a generation, it will be a key General Election issue. From the further education sector’s perspective, this focus on vocational education can only be seen as a welcome change in direction. Schools policy has for so long come to be regarded as synonymous with education policy – and that is no longer the case.
As the report makes clear, that profile is based in the acknowledgement that skills policy is not just about education but is central to responding to the complex economic challenges this country is facing. How we approach improving the skills of everyone in the UK will be essential in how we ensure that both individuals and the economy more broadly are able to enjoy greater prosperity in the future.
In meeting these complex economic challenges, it is quite right that Growth Through People takes a broad look at skills policy, from how employers engage with schools, to how we ensure that businesses are meeting their responsibility to improve the skills of their employees. There are no simple solutions to complex problems.
The range of solutions within the report, then, is one of its major strengths. The call on employers to lead in the design, provision and maintenance of vocational and practical education for instance is central. Yet the report recognises that high quality vocational education does not just mean apprenticeships – a welcome change from recent political rhetoric. Improving the quality and quantity of apprenticeships is but one aspect of building a world class vocational education system.
The need for employer leadership, in this light, is rightly balanced with the call for collaboration between employers, colleges, universities, and schools to deliver appropriate vocational education across the sector. Within this, it is very welcome that UKCES recognises both the success to date and the potential for colleges to further develop their provision of high level technical education. The inclusion of Blackpool and the Fylde College and City and Islington College as examples of good practice affirms the capacity within 157 Group members to deliver in that crucial area of skills provision.
As important as the breadth of the recommendations in the report are the underlying strands which run throughout Growth Through People – namely, stability, collaboration and consensus. As our own recent report, Future Colleges, highlighted, the vocational skills sector - both the employers involved as well as colleges and schools - need a period of stability from government. It is impossible to develop relationships or build partnerships in the context of constantly changing demands and priorities.
That stability will be particularly crucial if we are to develop a skills system which sees the collaboration between partners advocated here. In Future Colleges we called for colleges to be seen as hubs of workforce development and centres of educational collaboration. Colleges already work with tens of thousands of employers, big and small, every year. But to embed that level of collaboration throughout the sector and to ensure that those relationships can flourish, the system needs the policy stability both we and the UKCES support. Given that stability, colleges will become the social and economic anchors in their communities as advocated here.
Crucially, Growth Through People, and the work of UKCES more broadly, has given the sector a potential route towards that stability and collaboration – through consensus. For the skills sector to truly embed these values and to develop the partnerships needed, the support not only of colleges and employers is needed, but of unions, of schools, of central and local government, and of learners.
If that consensus, as highlighted by the joint support of the CBI and the TUC can be carried forward in to the crucial months ahead, then this report may signal an important and welcome new direction in skills policy.