The coalition Government: An end of year-one assessment
As we approach the May 11 anniversary of the coalition entering government, it’s an ideal time to evaluate their performance on education policy, and specifically their approach to skills.
The 2010 general election campaign brought the twin issues of the economy and skills training sharply into focus. There was widespread agreement that the short-term economic recovery and the long-term growth of the British economy depended on a robust skills policy and an enterprise-led economy.
Despite this hopeful beginning, the coalition is now facing a torrent of negative headlines focused on widespread youth unemployment, economic stagnation and controversial changes to university tuition fees. This begs the question - one year in, does the coalition Government pass or fail in promoting the skills so vital to UK employers?
Given the controversies of late, it would be easy to grade Messrs Cameron and Clegg a dismal 'D minus.' However, I believe that our overall skills policy is actually moving in the right direction, and that the Government's approach to date has left the UK well-placed to meet the needs of the decade ahead.
Review of vocational qualifications
Perhaps one of the most significant developments has been the Wolf Report into vocational qualifications. Viewed as a niche education topic by some, it signposts a realistic and strategic approach to vocational qualifications, which should bring enormous benefit to British businesses if the recommendations are implemented correctly.
Employers have often been split into two camps - those that understand the vocational qualification system and those (the majority) that have been confused by complex funding streams and the plethora of vocational qualification levels. Government-funded training schemes have often failed to achieve effective skills development, and many 'free' courses and qualifications simply did not develop the skills businesses needed. The Wolf Report rightly seeks to address this, simplify funding and regulation and increase the involvement of business and industry. It's a sign that vocational education is being taken seriously, and I hope the coalition continues to encourage employer involvement at every stage of the implementation process.
Investment in apprenticeships
The Government has pledged the creation of 400,000 apprenticeships a year from 2014-15. Both large and small businesses appreciate the value of apprenticeships, and I applaud any move that increases opportunities for young people to combine education with valuable on-the-job learning.
However, many Britons mistakenly believe that apprenticeships are limited to a blue-collar 'trades'. I would like to see the coalition go even further and create opportunities for a greater number of 'white collar' apprenticeships. Presently accountancy is one of the few 'professions' to offer a vocational path to the top. More white-collar apprenticeships will give businesses access to a wider talent pool and ensure employers are able to train people according to their needs.
Overall, the Government is moving in the right direction, but a more compelling case needs to be made to bring a broader range of employers on board.
University tuition fees
Perhaps the most contentious policy issue has been the increase in university tuition fees, which will have an unintended, but perhaps valuable impact on businesses.
While the increases will not be universally popular, I do welcome the fact that more people will now question the outcomes and value of a university education. The increase in fees may have the unintended benefit of pushing this country to recognise that vocational education offers a better alternative to university for many young people.
For too long, university has been seen as the only route to a successful professional career. However, as university attendance has increased, businesses have noted that it is increasingly difficult to recruit talented young people with work-ready skills. This is reflected in the accountancy sector with a move by some employers to recruit school leavers and train them on the job.
It's still early days, but for employers, the green shoots of progress can be seen. It's now up to Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg to deliver on their promises to reform the skills sector and ensure that the UK has a workforce matched to the demands of businesses. A satisfactory start, but improvement is needed.
Jane Scott Paul, chief executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians