Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab) [V]
My Lords, what a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, particularly in her last comments, as part of what has been a really interesting debate, with an excellent maiden speech in it. I remind noble Lords of my interests in the register relating to education, particularly my work with my clients, Purpose and 01-Edu.
There is of course much to welcome in this Bill but, sadly, as my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, time prevents me from dwelling on those elements. However, it is welcome that the Government are prioritising adult skills and to hear the Minister stress the need to focus on the needs of those not going on from school to university but going on to learn other skills. The combination of globalisation, new technology and climate change mitigation means continued rapid changes in the demand for skills. The World Economic Forum projects that almost half the skills needed for employees to work effectively will change in just the next four years—so deskilling is rampant. It is therefore the urgent responsibility of every Government around the world to transform their skills infrastructure so that it is highly flexible and to anticipate as well as react to the needs of the labour market, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said. Skills policy is now as much about changing in-work skills as it is about helping those at the start of their working lives, which appeared to be an assumption in the Minister’s opening speech.
Here in the UK, decades of underfunding of an overly complex skills system, persistent low productivity, Brexit uncertainty, and widening regional prosperity gaps make an emphasis on this all the more important. The Institute for the Future of Work’s recent report, The Amazonian Era, highlights recent trends, with worker management platforms rapidly deskilling people, from the warehouse floor to hollowing out supervisor roles—deskilling by algorithm. Yet this Bill seems to assume that skills qualifications act like a ratchet and that, once you have got a level 3, the only way is up, to level 4 and beyond. But skills are not like a platform computer game moving up through the levels; they are less Super Mario and more Snakes and Ladders. Personally, I would advocate the development of individual skills accounts over the loan system advocated in this Bill, using a mix of funding from the Treasury, employers and individuals, rather than what is being proposed.
In my remaining time, I want to focus on the diverse needs of three very different groups: the deskilled, the always reskilling, and the perennial professionals. On the deskilled, can the Minister confirm that the local skills improvement plans will fully integrate with welfare-to-work provision? In 2009, when I moved as a Minister from the DfE to the DWP, I struggled to get effective integration of skills and welfare policy—perhaps my weakness. But one department measures success in qualification outcomes while the other does so in job outcomes—and they work to very different timeframes. That has to be fixed through changes to the universal credit regime.
We also need an all-age careers advice service—and I enjoyed the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan —that aligns with a business advice service. For example, the move to a net-zero economy will create huge opportunities as we transition to new ways of living in our homes and at work. We will have new skills systems and businesses growing to meet those opportunities and anticipate these changes rather than just reacting to them. The fact that Wrexham College only recently became the first FE college to offer training in electric vehicle maintenance is truly shocking. For this group—the deskilled—the qualification ecosystem needs to be more dynamic.
Then there are those sectors, especially in the digital economy, that will always move too fast for qualifications to keep up. I am currently working with Nicolas Sadirac and 01 Founders, which is opening its first school in London later this year to train full stack software engineers. This proven system does not charge tuition fees, is a two-year course and has virtually a 100% employment rate at an average starting salary of over £40,000.
This model—no prior attainment, applying by playing an online game, no teachers and no qualifications—freaks out policymakers because it explodes all the foundations of what we understand about good education, but employers are desperate for this talent because it works. It has a highly dynamic curriculum and does not wait for qualifications to adjust to labour market demand. What is this Bill doing to support more innovative skills training like this, which is hardwired to deliver the shortage skills we need to grow successfully across the country? Does the Minister foresee funding skills measured by job outcomes as well as qualification outcomes?
Finally, I must say something about the training of professionals and here I will focus on teachers. The Government are currently engaged in a review of initial teacher training. Last week they quietly published a document titled Delivering World-Class Teacher Development, which does not mention universities once. It is part of a move that appears to be one of statist centralisation where they want to control the content and method of teacher training to fit Ministers’ judgments on what is best.
This is a grotesque attack on the academic freedom of universities that may destroy the very system supplying teachers into our schools. It betrays a view that teaching is little more than a craft skill, rather than a profession that needs both continuous academic and practice-based development. Can the Minister reassure me, and the many ITT providers I am talking to through the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Teaching Profession, that there will always be a place for universities like Oxford, UCL and Sunderland in teacher training? Our adult skills infrastructure must meet the needs of great professions like teaching, as well as traditional trades and emerging jobs. In doing so, it must fully respect the role of academic vocational training.
This is a really important Bill, but it is no more than a start. I look forward to trying to help improve it and I hope that Ministers are listening to the real-world reality of change and reflecting that policy thinking needs to change to take account of rapid deskilling and the diversity of needs we all face.