In the run up to yesterday’s historic transfer of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown there was plenty of press speculation over the possible Brown cabinet. We now have our first glimpses, with detail to follow as lower ministers are appointed.
It isn’t yet clear who will be charged with maintaining and building the UK’s skills base, but one fascinating decision has apparently already been made ….
The Department for Education was renamed the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) under Blair, in recognition that the government of a knowledge economy must play some role in building a productive, skilled workforce beyond formal education.
Under Brown the department will apparently be split in two (according to various newspapers this morning), with education and skills each to receive a ministry. That represents a huge shift in the official recognition of skills from 1997. Indeed, the current level of debate on skills and national human capital would have been unimaginable back then. I know. I was trying to engage in a national debate on IT skills in ’97, but nobody was interested. They are now.
This isn’t just a Labour thing. The Conservatives, too, are talking the same language in their paper Skills Training for a More Competitive Economy, although John Redwood looks as painfully uncomfortable without a tie on the Tory website as Gordon Brown did yesterday in front of number 10, wearing a business-friendly sky blue one.
Predictably, Redwood would scrap much of the skills bureaucracy introduced by Labour, but – interestingly – would retain the 25, industry-specific Sector Skills Councils, on the basis that they drive demand-led training.
Back to Brown. On Tuesday, the Guardian speculated on how skills under Brown would look, with particular stress on the idea of increased funding for workforce development.
There’s no doubt that Brown is deeply commited to education and skills. He has repeatedly referred to them as a ‘national mission’, as in this BBC interview from February.
The question now is whether the man wedded to prudence, but commitment to skills can deliver change (a word he used 8 times in his short Downing Street speech yesterday) without building more bureaucracy.