Skills Accounts the answer to Leitch Review

It’s been a busy week for skills and politics in the UK.

What does it all mean, and could skills policy have an effect on election results?

The skills campaign, with its slightly creepy tulip/hands logo carries this scary message:

For individuals, two out of three jobs in the future will require a higher level of skills and better qualifications. In fact, in less than ten years there will be very few unskilled jobs.

This is echoed in DIUS response to the Leitch Review:

To realise that vision for a prosperous future for all our citizens, we need to build on the progress we have made to date and improve our skills still further. That’s why, by 2020, we have committed to joining the world’s ‘premier league’ for skills.

The statement of the problem is familiar by now, as it was originally in the Leitch Review. Okay, so what’s to be done? As well as the familiar Train to Gain and Skills Pledge, and the interesting possibility of the Sector Skills Councils introducing industry levies, there is one key new initiative: Skills Accounts.

In its own words, here’s what the report says on Skills Accounts:

We will pilot the new concept of ‘Skills Accounts’, which will give individuals greater ownership and choice over their learning, motivating them to gain skills and achieve qualifications, enter work and progress in employment.

When they open a Skills Account, individuals will be able to access the full range of adult information, advice and guidance services in the new universal adult careers service. They will also receive an account number and account card, which will help people to understand the levels of investment going into their training, whether it’s coming from them, their employer or the state.

Skills Accounts, Jobcentre Plus and the new adult careers service will come together to provide customers with the seamless service they need to identify and access the right training and skills opportunities, at the right time.

They also add:

In designing and piloting the programme we will build on what emerges from the Learner Accounts pilot that will run in 2007/08. We must also learn from the experience of Individual Learning Accounts – both what worked, and what went wrong. At no time will there be any flow of public funding out of the system, giving a strong protection of the public purse from possible fraud

All to the good. The estimated public money wasted on the ILAs runs to some £400m.

Also to the good is the point that Skills Accounts are not an initiative on their own, but are part of a structure around training provision. The idea goes something like this: individuals get advice on which careers they are suited for, and which training would help them progress in those careers, and may be part-funded to take that training. They can give feedback on their training, and log their progress on a learner record, all keyed against their Unique Learner Number.

Again good. In theory.

In practice, there’s only one test for this: will it work?

Answer: not if there’s a big bang solution backed up with groaning, over-engineered technology specified by academics and civil servants for an ideal world that fails to coincide with reality and can’t change when it realises it. Who says that’s the wrong way to build technology? UK eUniversity does (£50m + for pie-in-the-sky e-learning).

In contrast, Train to Gain has worked for various reasons, one of which is that it began as a series of locally-run pilots (the Employer Training Pilots, later Programmes). The emphasis was on getting people trained according to meeting the best needs locally and learning from experience. And it worked. (There may be other issues around Train to Gain, but that’s the subject of a later post.)

Back in May, I outlined what I thought the nightmare scenario would be after the Leitch Report. From this new report I believe the government has learnt some of the lessons of the past. Three things in particular give me hope that they might get this right:

  1. The report explicitly recognises that the UK’s skills can’t be overhauled quickly
  2. The new scheme is due to begin this Autumn with pilots, not with a big bang
  3. Politics

What do I mean by politics?

It wasn’t coincidence that Monday saw the marketing, Wednesday the launch and Thursday the two by-elections.

Did all this skills-focused activity have any role in Labour’s two by-election victories? Unlikely. Skills policy (rather than schools and education policy) is seen as too far removed from people’s lives to have much of an influence on them.

On the other hand, the policies were given huge profile in a politically sensitive week. What does that tell us? Gordon Brown’s new government clearly believes that skills are worth shouting about, and are willing to stake a lot on them.

There will be a great deal of political will to ensure that these policies succeed, and that gives me hope that they might.

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