Less really would be more

The skills sector is unwieldy, complex, vital to the country's future and desperately in need of ref

My first plan was to keep a note of all the different bodies I came across, with the hope of finally piecing together the skill-sector jigsaw. Within hours, I found myself with a list of 17 quangos, with more ticking through.

KCES, AoC, RDA, SSC . . . The SFA - Skills Funding Agency - which answers to the DBIS - Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - ­distributes funding to all the other bodies, but beyond that, I was lost.

For the completely uninitiated, the term "skills" refers to a range of age groups and qualifications. The sector deals with further education, encompassing all post-16 education apart from universities. But it's not that simple. It also includes apprenticeships, on-the-job training, adult community learning, and certain vocational qualifications for 14-to-16-year-olds. So it's a pretty broad remit - and stuffed with acronyms.

But just how did it all get so complicated? Until the 1960s, the government played only a tiny role in funding or controlling skills training, which was mainly left up to employers. In 1964, faced with the prospect of thousands of young people and not enough apprenticeships for them, legislation was introduced; industrial training boards were set up to raise a levy from industry, and then pay it out in training grants.

And after that, "education and training became the policy lever of choice for doing something about the economy, given the non-interventionist beliefs of the Thatcher government", says Professor Ewart Keep, deputy director of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at Cardiff University.

“Supplying employers with the skills they needed, either free of charge, or heavily subsidised, was the only positive thing they could do.

“New Labour cemented this knowledge economy, and added in the idea that skills could tackle a whole range of social problems - inequality, social exclusion. In the end, there wasn't a single problem that education policy wasn't meant to be tackling. When you've decided it is the policy lever of choice, you must control it, in ever more detail. We've seen control-freakery snowballing."

The system now starts with UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills), an employer-led body responsible for advising DBIS on skills forecasting - or the current and future needs of the ­country. They're supported in this by ­regional development agencies (RDAs), which identify skills gaps in particular geographical areas. Sector skills councils (SSCs) representing different industries also contribute.

DBIS then uses this information to make a national strategy and set targets, with the help of the Department for ­Education and the Department for Work and Pensions. The SFA is responsible for distributing the funding, and works with the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA), which looks ­after education for 16-to-19-year-olds.

And these are just the basics; there are many other bodies involved, including Of­qual, which regulates qualifications, and Ofsted, the inspectors of schools, local education authorities and childcare in England - and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Association of Colleges (AoC) represents the view of further education colleges, working with groups at all levels.

After a week researching the sector, the sheer volume of quangos and boards seems dizzying. David Hughes, director of college and learning provider services at the SFA, told me that there are more than 80 quangos working with skills. The coalition government plans to scale this back to around 60.

I asked him how the sector had become so complicated, with boards to check on agencies which fund providers, and so on, and so on? He said: "This is a sector where many billions of pounds of public money are being spent. We'd expect there to be checks and balances on organisations. Whether the number is right or too many comes down to the politicians."

Policy Exchange, the centre-right think tank, published a critical report on the skills sector earlier this year. "The skills system is labyrinthine and there are a plethora of bodies duplicating one another's work," says Ralph Hartley, research fellow in the education unit and an author of the report.

“Colleges, learning providers and employers are all forced to employ armies of administrative staff to navigate the system. The complexity of the system means that people aren't always doing the training which they are best suited to or which will be of most value to them."

Policy Exchange's report found that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the body that was replaced by the SFA and YPLA in April, spent proportionally ten times as much on administration as HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

I put this to the SFA's Hughes. "The LSC did slim down in its lifetime considerably. We're expecting to continue slimming down and get more efficient ourselves," he says. "We've got targets this year to reduce administrative spending sig­nificantly, as has most of the public sector."

Of course, it's important to have a combination of local and national bodies working in a varied sector that provides education to more than three million people. But is it just too complicated?

“A huge political influence is the fact that no one understands the system," Hartley points out. "This leads politicians to play a hugely simplistic game of 'whose apprenticeship numbers are bigger'.

“In other words, when it comes to election time, the only thing politicians try to do is explain how they are going to deliver more apprenticeships. The result is that we are stuck with a mindset whereby we increase supply, rather than ensuring that supply meets demand and that training is of the highest quality."

Many of the recent changes to the skills sector - such as the replacement of the LSC with the SFA and YPLA - are based on the proposals of the 2006 Leitch report which argued passionately that the system was not working; Leitch wanted skills put right at the heart of the political agenda.

ut does it put too much weight on the link between qualifications and economic growth? Have we ended up with the usual New Labour obsession with targets?

“The rigid nature of the national targets has sometimes got in the way of colleges and providers," Hughes concedes. "But most people benefit if they gain qualifications. It's a trite but important analogy that not many of us would want to be ­operated on by someone who wasn't a fully qualified doctor."

The crux of the problem, it appears, is regulation. "I think the key problem could probably be summed up in a single word - planning," says Hartley. "The previous government really boosted skills investment - and rightly so - but it wanted to attach far too many strings to that money."

Teresa Frith of the Association of Colleges agrees with him on this point. "Because the whole thing is surrounded by a significant number of rules - as always when you are spending from the public purse - you can be restricted from responding flexibly to the community's immediate needs. The rules were set in a time of prosperity; it's problematic if you can't shift them to recognise a change."

Hughes says that the SFA is moving away from its top-down approach. "As soon as you set national priorities you're going to get it wrong somewhere. If you can balance a framework of priorities nationally with flexibility at the local level, you are more likely to get the right thing delivered to people at the right time. That's where we're driving. It's exciting."

Ewart Keep of Cardiff, however, believes that the root of the problem is deeper, drawing attention to the frenetic pace of change: "No other country in the OECD has changed its training programmes at the speed England has. The sector is in a state of endless revolution," he says.

"By the time Labour left office, only two institutions - HEFCE and Ofsted - survived more or less unchanged. Every single other body was abolished at least once and changed.Every time a reform is announced, there is an assumption that it will solve these big problems. But in a sense, institutional reform is a displacement activity; it doesn't deal with the really deep-seated, structural problems."

There is no doubt that skills are incredibly important. Vince Cable has spoken of the need to remove the hierarchy between vocational qualifications and higher education for good. Both the Tories and Lib Dems have stressed the need for more apprenticeships - although Keep draws attention to the irony of this target, given the coalition's stated aim of rejecting a target-driven approach.

Those I spoke to within the sector were optimistic about its prospects under the new government. Lessening the number of bodies involved and reducing regulation appear to be sensible options. However, this is easier said than done - in such a complex matrix of quangos and boards, the process of reform itself can trigger problems, as evidenced by the difficulties currently being thrown up by the transfer of vocational qualifications to the new Qualifications and Credit Framework.

People in the sector frequently refer to students as "end-users" - a piece of management-speak that sounds strange to the untrained ear. The most important thing is to remember that these end-users are people; their needs must remain the priority.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.