Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance


Easy to say, hard to do…… – some reflections on the Skills Plan

Ewart Keep

July 11th, 2016

This comment piece offers some initial reactions to the Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan (BIS, 2016a).  It does not try to cover every aspect of what is being recommended, it simply focuses on those areas that the author deems most important or contentious.  Although references to the Sainsbury Review of technical education (Sainsbury et al, 2016) are made in what follows, since the Skills Plan is the government’s response to the Review, a detailed analysis of Sainsbury is a much bigger exercise and not one that is being attempted here.

Big goals, big hopes, big asks

An opening observation is that both the Skills Plan and the Sainsbury Review find themselves demanding actions and outcomes that are easy to write about or say ought to happen, but which history suggests are exceedingly hard to actually deliver.  Three important examples are highlighted here.

First, “young people will only work hard to get a qualification, and value it highly when they get it, if employers when recruiting give priority to individuals who possess it” (foreword to the Sainsbury Review – emphasis added).  As forthcoming work by Leesa Wheelahan and colleagues at Toronto University, and Phil Brown and Manuel Souto-Otero will demonstrate, in labour markets like our own, that lack extensive Licence to Practice (LtP) regulation, and where the hold that qualifications have on employers’ recruitment and selection decisions is at best ‘fuzzy’, this will be a major challenge.

The second ‘easy to say, hard to do’ design principle relates to the role and representation of employers.  The search for the ‘authentic voice’ of employers has been with us for a long time, and much like the quest for El Dorado no final discovery is readily in sight.  The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) fell out of love with sector skills councils (SSCs) and other intermediary bodies a while ago, and the official belief is now that what is needed is input from “actual employers” (BIS, 2016a: 11), rather than, “a confusing mixture of awarding organisations and intermediary bodies, which have not proved an effective voice for business” (2016a: 11).  The underlying problem, that UK employers are very weakly collectively organised in comparison with their counterparts in many other OECD countries, is skated over by both Sainsbury and by BIS.

The new model for securing the real voice of employers is that offered by the apprenticeship Trailblazer groups.  SSCs were, “too remote” (BIS, 2016a: 19), so what is now needed is the direct voice of employers, though the identity of these employers in terms of whether they are line managers, production engineers, CEOs, HR or training specialists, is never clarified.  Interestingly, although the Plan implies that a direct voice from individual employers is the new authenticity that it seeks, Sainsbury states that, “these professionals should be appointed in an individual capacity, not as representatives of their employers”.

It would be easier to be confident that the Trailblazer model is viable and offers the best alternative if the bulk of the standards that they have created had already been successfully rolled out, taken up and delivered, and employers across the industries that the Trailblazer groups purported to speak for were happy with the end results.  In reality, none of this has happened yet, and so a great many hopes and expectations are being loaded onto an unproven vehicle.  Moreover, Lord Sainsbury offers the view that, “it will only work if industry takes ownership of the content and standards of technical education, and makes certain that companies adhere to them” (foreword to Sainsbury et al, 2016).  It is hard to see how this can be accomplished in the absence of those now-unfashionable intermediary bodies.  Relying on hundreds of thousands of individual firms reporting to a beefed-up Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) would certainly imply that the IfA will be kept very busy indeed.

The third example of hopeful (wishful?) thinking is that BIS have decided that substantial work placements will become mandatory within college-based provision and that every 16-18 year old student will be ‘entitled’ to a work placement (BIS, 2016a: 24).  Easy to say, very hard to do.  The Sainsbury Review attached a healthy price tag to this requirement (£500 per student per year), which BIS do not mention at all (see below).  Moreover, BIS are demanding that students will be entitled to something that neither they nor colleges can directly deliver.  This ‘mandatory entitlement’ in reality rests with the willingness of employers to volunteer the requisite number of placements.

Meshing Technical Pathways and Apprenticeships

The Plan is clear that apprenticeships are to be nested within and be directly compatible with the new Technical Pathways and give the impression that that they believe that the IfA will be able to contrive this fairly easily.  However, the Sainsbury Review is, wisely, rather more cautious on this point, and underlines the need for the existing Trailblazer Standards to be reviewed to ensure that they are all broad enough to be part of the relevant pathway, and that they avoid offering narrowly specified education and training for an entry level job.  Given some of the currently signed off apprenticeship standards:

  • Automotive glazing technician
  • Bid and proposal co-ordinator
  • Asbestos removal operative
  • Customer experience specialist
  • Customer service practitioner
  • Mineral products weighbridge operator
  • Dual fuel smart meter installer

enabling quite a lot of the Trailblazer standards fit within the much broader pathways that Sainsbury envisages may require some heavy lifting by the IfA.  The fact that these kinds of standards have emerged from Trailblazer groups also suggests that getting employers to understand the concepts of occupations and broad pathways and move beyond a mentality of designing course that train for immediate entry-level job needs, may not be quite as simple as BIS assume it to be (see Fuller and Unwin, 2013; and Brockmann, Clarke and Winch, 2011).

Binary world, or two routes and a residuum?

A casual reading of the Plan might give the impression, particularly to a reader not well-versed in the realities of the English labour market and the skills system, that in future at age all 16 young people would either enter an academic route leading to A levels and thence to university, or one of the Sainsbury Review’s proposed 15 Technical Pathways.  Closer inspection would reveal that this will not be the case.  The Pathways, even though they will start at Level 2 (i.e. at a lower secondary level) are tied to a job content/skill requirement threshold (“skilled employment” that demands “a substantial body of technical knowledge”) that means that large swathes of lower end employment will be outside the pathways.  For example, retail assistant is the largest single job category in the UK labour market, but its skill requirements are too low for it to be counted within the Sales, Marketing and Procurement pathway.

What seems to be expected is that, for lower achieving young people, a ‘transition year’ will be on offer, with the aim of either preparing them to progress onto a Technical Pathway or to enter employment, much of which it has to be presumed will be low wage, low skilled employment, since this often makes up a significant proportion of the entry level opportunities for young people in many local labour markets (see the UKCES’s Youth Inquiry for details on this point).

An escape hatch for government?

Although the Plan claims to have accepted every one of the Sainsbury Review panel’s recommendations, in reality there is a major piece of weaselling out, in the shape of the fact that the Plan will only roll out those recommendations that can be afforded within the current rather constrained spending envelope.  The Review stresses that some of its recommendations will come with a healthy price tag attached – for example, their desire to make mandatory and beef up work experience for everyone undertaking technical education.

Deficiencies in understanding the past

Both the Plan and the Sainsbury Review’s accounts of history in this field and of why previous attempts at reform failed are at best partial.  The Plan’s point about the tendency for reform to be rushed and for new developments to be abandoned before they have been given the chance to bed in and develop is certainly correct – the example of the Coalition Government’s decision to kill off the 14-19 Diplomas springs to mind – but the effort to paint all that had gone before the arrival of the Coalition Government in 2010 as some kind of ‘dark age’ and the period since as the dawn of a mini-renaissance is an unhelpful piece of point scoring.  For instance, the authors of the Plan might bear in mind that NVQs, the now apparently despised National Occupational Standards (NOS) and much else besides were designed and implemented by a previous generation of Conservatives ministers within the Thatcher government.   Moreover, the claim that the Skills Plan represents the first ever attempt to address policy issues at a systems level is distinctly odd and suggests yet another instance of selective policy amnesia.  New Labour’s Skills Strategy of 2003 was nothing if not an attempt to produce a system-level analysis and blueprint for action.  It was admittedly based upon a fairly weak and misleading analysis and the resultant blueprint was deeply flawed, but it is idle to deny that it was systemic in nature.

Lord Sainsbury’s foreword to his report contains its own strange lack of grasp of what happened in the past, arguing that all previous attempts to reform technical education failed because they were merely ‘tinkering’.  Whatever the introduction of a system of competence-based National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), the creation of National Occupational Standards (NOS) to underpin them, and the putting in place of a National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) to marshal and channel the voice of employers and to superintend the evolution of NVQs and NOS was, it was not tinkering.  The move to a competence-based system was a genuine (if misguided) attempt at systems level change. Advocates believed that the competence-based model could be extended to cover academic learning as well, and as noted above, great things were expected from its attempts to get employers to directly specify exactly what competences they wanted their workers to possess.  The inability to understand previous waves of reform is worrying, because it suggests that there is a danger that both the Review and the Plan under-estimate just how difficult and exacting it will be to progress their recommendations.

If you want to build a ‘broad consensus’…….

The other point to make in this regard is that Mr Boles, as the Minister (for the moment at least) sponsoring this Plan, claims in the Plan’s introduction to be keen to forge a cross-party consensus around the proposed reforms.  If this is a genuine aim, then the kind of ‘it was dire until 2010, only since then has any progress been made’ comments that pop up from time to time within the Plan are probably not the best starting point or tone to strike in pursuit of developing such a lasting consensus.

Watch this space

There are a number of areas where further important policy decisions and developments will be forthcoming in the next few months as the Plan is rolled out:

General vocational awards.  The Plan wants a consultation on whether general vocational awards, such as BTEC nationals should continue to exist, or whether the world really should come down to a simple, binary choice at 16 – the academic route and A levels or the technical route and one of the 15 new pathways, as the Plan’s various diagrams imply it probably should.  As noted above, this model helpfully sweeps under the carpet the large residue of young people whose labour market opportunities and choices may not allow them to pursue a pathway, but who will instead be heading into employment that has education and training requirements below the level of Sainsbury’s Technical Pathways.

If general vocational qualifications bite the dust, this will have significant implications for sections of higher education, where these kinds of courses and awards offered a non-A level route into HE.  As far back as GNVQs, general vocational awards have been a backdoor into Million + universities and other institutions, and if that door is padlocked shut then the choices for young people will be narrowed, and some universities will find themselves with a major hole in their intake targets.

The future of awarding bodies.  Neither the Sainsbury Review nor BIS’s Plan will have had the champagne corks popping in the offices of awarding bodies, especially some of the smaller ones.  If there are only 15 Technical Pathways, and each will only have one monopoly awarding body for its suite of qualifications, decided by an open competition judged by the IfA (not Ofqual), there are going to be a lot of losers, some of whom will probably not subsequently survive.  This rationalisation of the qualifications system is long overdue, but it will not be achieved without considerable angst and is going to fundamentally alter the number and structure of awarding organisations.  It is also, in passing, not at all clear what the future role of Ofqual is in all this.  It garners not a single substantive mention in the Plan, and its functions as they relate to technical/vocational learning appear to be being allocated to the IfA. It too appears to face an uncertain future.

Final thoughts……

One of the problems with working in the same policy field for 35 years is that government strategies and policy statements come and go with depressing rapidity and after a while start to blur.  The scrapheap of education and training policy history is piled high with the hulks of failed strategies, plans, targets and reform programmes, all of which were, when launched, the next big thing.  As the author has noted on previous occasions, one of the problems with sequential ‘reforms’ is that each time the architects of the reform insist to themselves and to the world that ‘this time it will be different’ (i.e. the policy will work as intended).  The Skills Plan actually states in its penultimate paragraph (2016a: 43), “This time must be different”.  Easy to say, possibly quite hard to deliver, at least if the history of the last 35 years of skills reforms are anything to go by.

Indeed, given the less than stellar success rate of past efforts to re-design and re-invigorate our qualifications system (who now remembers Tomlinson, or Beaumont, or Higginson?), a wise starting point would be to acknowledge the difficulty of the enterprise.  The Sainsbury Review panel appear far more aware of how big their ‘ask’ is than do BIS.  This is worrying because BIS, and once it gets established the IfA, will be the ones who have to take forward what Sainsbury recommended.  Over-confidence and an under-estimation of the political and technical difficulties attendant upon reform have often proved fatal in the past.

It is also hard not to be reminded of Unwin et al’s point (2004) about English qualification reform acting as a substitute for other kinds of changes, and our habitual over-reliance on re-designing qualification structures as an indirect lever for generating improvement in curriculum, pedagogy and standards.    BIS’s Plan seems in danger of casting the move towards a set of pathways as a miracle cure for a great many deep-seated and long-standing ills.  Even if the pathways can be made to work, some of these ills are liable to remain.

Three final points might also be made.  First, what is proposed does not address the gap noted by Brockmann, Clarke and Winch (2011), that exists between the depth and breadth of core general education that we are willing to build into our vocational/technical qualifications and courses, and that which our continental counterparts deem necessary.  All we get in the Sainsbury pathways model is maths, English, ICT and some generic skills.  The wider dimensions of learning that serve as the basis for a return to academic study and/or lifelong learning and citizenship in other countries remains as unattainable (and even un-discussable) as ever.  The answer, it appears, is not to build wider learning into the core design of the pathways, but to offer bridging courses that will allow young people and adults to transfer between vocational and academic routes (and vice versa).

Second, the Skills Plan neatly glides over the fact that although these reforms are in part explicitly motivated and informed by our poor showing in the OECD’s Beyond School project, and our desire to try to develop a system of Technical and Professional Education (TPE) similar to that found in many other OECD countries, what is being proposed would look slightly odd to observers elsewhere.  Unlike their systems, if the Skills Plan is to be believed, much of this learning will be at Level 2 (i.e. lower secondary rather than upper secondary) and the bulk of this activity will take place not as a tertiary phase (i.e. post18/19), but as part of our upper secondary phase.  We are unusual in how much we try to front-load our education, and the relatively short duration of that initial learning when compared to what happens elsewhere.

Finally, both the Sainsbury Review and the Skills Plan are very clear that the fulcrum of reform rests upon the willingness of individual employers to adopt these proposed changes and take them forward – “increasing the level of employer engagement with training and development is a central plank of the freeform process” (BIS, 2016b: 17).  The problem, as our various previous experiments with ‘employer ownership’ of skills policy have demonstrated, is that this is another thing that we have found it easy to ask for, but exceedingly hard to deliver (Keep, 2015).  On many measures, employers have for some time now been in retreat from skills in terms of what they are willing to do and offer (see Keep, 2015), and the fact that government has had to impose a levy on firms to try to compel commitment to apprenticeships does not really bode well for what is now being asked of them.

Indeed, the paradox that underlies both the Sainsbury Review and the BIS Skills Plan is that employers are in reality a central part of the UK’s ‘skills problem’.  Their demand for skills is weak.  The OECD’s PIAAC survey indicated we have the second lowest demand from employers for young people educated beyond compulsory schooling out of 22 countries, a fact that goes a long way towards explaining many of the problems Sainsbury identifies. Their commitment to, and interest in training many of their employees is relatively limited, as the Skills Plan’s supporting evidence document (BIS, 2016b) makes plain, and they often have difficulty in deploying skills productively within their workplaces.

Despite this, since 1981 and the New Training Initiative (NTI), most skills reform proposals have tried to paint voluntary action on the part of employers as the key to a solution.  This time, the policy makers have been wont to say, we will make them an offer they surely cannot refuse.  The problem, at least until now, is that on the whole, employers have refused to act as expected.  With the Skills Plan the ‘offer’ that cannot be refused is to get involved in designing and regulating technical qualifications.  Thus, from the point of view of what will happen next, the $64,000 dollar question is how enthusiastically employers will react to, and actively participate within, this new round of qualification reform.


BIS. 2016a.  Post-16 Skills Plan, CM 9280, London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

BIS. 2016b.  Technical education reform: the case for change, London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Brockmann, M., Clarke, L., and Winch, C. (eds.) 2011. Knowledge, Skills and Competence in the European Labour Market: What’s in a Vocational Qualification?, Abingdon: Routledge.

Fuller, A., and Unwin, L. 2013. ‘Apprenticeship and the Concept of Occupation’, Gatsby Briefing Paper, London: Gatsby Foundation.

Keep, E. 2015. Unlocking workplace skills: what is the role of employers?, CIPD Policy Report, London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Sainsbury, D., Blagden, S., Robinson, B., West, S., and Wolf, A. 2016. Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Unwin, L., Fuller, A., Turbin, J., and Young, M. 2004. ‘What determines the impact of vocational qualifications? A literature review’, DfES Research Report RR522, Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills.