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14 October 2014

Why is the UK still behind in the global skills race, despite politicians’ promises?

Sense and instability: Andrew Adonis on a new report scrutinising the policies of successive administrations on skills and employment.

By Andrew Adonis

“We knew it was going to take time to make the necessary changes. It was going to take time to evolve,” said David Moyes after being unceremoniously sacked as Manchester United manager having failed to survive even a full season. “In the end, I don’t feel I was given time to succeed or fail.”

Now every armchair football pundit – myself included – has a view on Moyes’ time at the top, and many would say he deserved to be sent off. But we’ll never know what would have happened had he had the time to mature in the role, and see some of those ‘necessary changes’ take effect. Perhaps he would indeed have restored the club to their former glory.

Skills and employment policy tends not to captivate attention in quite the same way as premier league football, but the two have something in common. Both attract an unhealthy focus with short-term results at the expense of long-term planning. In football, it’s all about this week’s game, not about the next season. And when it comes to upskilling British adults, it’s too often all about keeping the unemployment figures down or having a policy to point do when asked how you are ‘solving’ the problem, and not implanting sustainable reform.

Certainly, that’s been the case over the past 30 years. This week, the City & Guilds Group published a landmark paper assessing how skills policy has changed since the start of the Thatcher era. What we found was very worrying; we’ve been going round in circles, with grave consequences for our future economy.

For starters, after three decades, issues like youth unemployment, long-term joblessness and the skills gap remain as pressing as ever. Describing it as a ‘human tragedy’ at her 1980 Conference Speech, Margaret Thatcher said it was the “bounden duty of government to seek a real and lasting cure” to unemployment. Sixteen years later, a fresh faced Tony Blair vowed to cut the numbers of long-term unemployed within five years.

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So how is it that last month George Osborne was still pledging to “abolish long-term youth unemployment”? How is it that after all these lofty promises, after 13 Acts of Parliament on skills, and seven major reports that have been issued, the UK is losing the global skills race?

As we discovered, the lack of continuity is a big factor. It’s astonishing, for example, to see that skills and industrial policy have shifted between departments 12 times since 1979, and there have been 61 Secretaries of State responsible for the issue in that period – especially when you consider that there have only been 18 focused on schools and 16 on university policy. Skills policy, it seems, can be chopped and changed for publicity – but the need for stability is recognised when it comes to schools and university policies.

Our research revealed that constant flip-flopping and churn has led to a collective amnesia around what works and what doesn’t. If no organisational memory at political and official levels is retained over the years, how can we expect policymakers to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past?

Since 1981, you could have taken part in one of at least 19 different major vocational programmes and initiatives – not because each new one was better than the previous, but because of a fixation in successive administrations on structures and headline-grabbing short-term fixes.  And this sustained disruption, whether low level ‘tinkering’ or radical system-wide reform, has consistently and often negatively impacted implementation in key areas.

As we near the election, I’d like to see all parties move away once and for all from the football manager approach and take the long view on skills policy, one informed by economic forecasts and hard evidence. We need to see central and local authorities making decisions together, and we need greater scrutiny from a skills-focused version of the OBR to ensure programmes deliver progress and offer value for money.  Most of all, we need politicians to stop politicising an issue that matters for all parties and all people.

Ultimately, businesses – not to mention those who are unable to get a foot on the professional ladder – need stability. Our politicians owe it to the next generations to allow new initiatives and approaches to mature and have the time to succeed.

Come May, I’d like to see all parties committing to the same strategy – one that uses the lessons of the past to inform the policies of the future. We need a skills agenda that is thought out for the next decade, not the day’s newspapers.

Otherwise, like Manchester United, we risk slipping behind our rivals.

Andrew Adonis is shadow infrastructure minister and is leading Labour’s growth review