A new train of thought

February 3, 2021

As Boris Johnson sets his sights on recovering ground lost during the COVID-19 pandemic through his ‘build back better’ programme, the Prime Minister has been told his plans risk failure unless he takes immediate action to improve England’s skills provision. With the Learning & Work Institute demanding radical reforms to technical education, Steven Hugill speaks to two North East business figures about what is needed to ensure talent continues to roll off the production line.

Ever wondered what became of Fatima?

Maybe she’s still pursuing her ballet dreams at the barre?

Perhaps she pirouetted into that cyber job, after all?

Fatima, you will recall, was the unfortunate ‘star’ of a short-lived – and much-criticised – Government-backed campaign last year that urged people to ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’ and consider alternative careers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’, read the promotion, followed by the rather menacing tagline ‘she just doesn’t know it yet’.

That the campaign was pulled as quickly as it appeared – Government ministers formed a queue with great haste to condemn it – only served to reflect its incredible lack of tact.

As a PR exercise, it was a miserable failure.

However, where it did achieve some success was in lighting a fresh fire under Downing Street and its priorities on ensuring England’s conveyor belt of talent keeps rolling.

The message was loud and clear: the Government itself needs to do some rethinking and rebooting.

To that end, ministers have taken some action.

In the days just before North East Times went to print, Gavin Williamson was unveiling the Government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper.

The Education Secretary says the plans will “transform post-16 education and training” by handing responsibility to colleges and business groups to create regionally-tailored skills plans and by giving employers a central role in designing technical courses. Further initiatives such as the Kickstart Scheme – founded with the aim of providing funding to employers to create job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit – and fresh incentive payments for employers hiring apprentices, also point to positive steps.

But, say critics, such changes must form part of a wider, united approach, rather than piecemeal efforts that – if not administered effectively enough – run the risk of only adding extra complexity to an already intricate system.

One organisation that subscribes to that school of thought is the Learning and Work Institute.

Just a few weeks after the Fatima faux pas, the adult education campaigning body was warning a million young people could be locked out of education, employment or training because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arguing such a situation would only “compound previous shortfalls in education and employment support”, it unveiled the hard-hitting ‘Unleashing Talent: Levelling up Opportunity for Young People’ blueprint, which demands watershed action for the benefit of England’s six million 16 to 24-year-olds.

Set across a decade, the report’s plans call for the creation of a “world-leading education” system that will enable three quarters of young people – as opposed to fewer than two-thirds presently – to gain A-level equivalent qualifications by the time they are 25.

It also demands the introduction of a Youth Guarantee, to ensure all young people are offered a job, training place or apprenticeship, a widening of eligibility for the Kickstart Scheme to young people not on benefits and says targets must be realigned to ensure at least one in three young people enter into an apprenticeship.

The study – from the Institute’s Youth Commission – also argues for a rise in the minimum wage and a new Youth Allowance in Universal Credit, which it says will help students more easily combine work with learning.

It represents, says Sarah Glendinning, CBI North East director, a very timely opportunity to avoid “robbing a generation of vital early employer interactions”.

“The Learning and Work Institute is right to prioritise job creation, skills training and opportunities for young people as essential to the recovery,” she tells North East Times.

“Unemployment must not be allowed to scar the prospects of a generation.

“The Kickstart Scheme represents a promising opportunity for young people at risk of long-term unemployment to gain important work experience.

“It is crucial then that participating businesses receive application decisions and detailed feedback promptly to ensure as many young people as possible can benefit from the scheme, and businesses are supported to facilitate clear progression routes to apprenticeships and further education.”

Sarah finds support from Michelle Rainbow, skills director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), who says the Learning and Work Institute’s wish-list “would have a transformational impact for our region.”

She says: “The report is a great summary of the challenges facing young people and the blueprint for change offers much commonality in thinking.

“Youth unemployment in the North East is high and has historically been high, although before the pandemic crisis this was improving.

“If all of the interventions in this blueprint for change were implemented, it would have a transformational impact on our region.

“It is crucial the Government and all of the regional partners involved in delivery pull together and think about how we streamline and collaborate to make these actions a reality.

“We also need to make it joined up and seamless for young people transitioning out of education into employment.

“It is imperative schemes such as Kickstart, the improved apprenticeship incentives, traineeships and T-levels are implemented efficiently.”

Michelle is particularly well placed to talk of such a united response.

The LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan, which aims to create 100,000 more and better jobs by 2024 across sectors such as health and life science and advanced manufacturing, and its Skills Advisory Panel, a drive focused on identifying current and future skills and market needs, are both propelled by industry leader collaboration.

She continues: “Without exception, every single point (of the Learning and Work Institute’s report) is something that we have highlighted or are acting on.

“With that in mind, it would be welcomed if the March Budget could provide further flexibility to enable us to better mould existing projects to the needs of the North East.

“For example, we had a tremendous response to Kickstart from employers, but allowing sole directors and the self- employed to also participate would better suit our particular business demographic.”

Such pliability across the employment environment is reiterated by Sarah, who, through her role with CBI, is helping support the LEP’s focus – spearheaded by the North East Ambition programme – on ensuring all schools and colleges meet a number of stringent benchmarks around pupil progress and success by 2024.

She adds: “Introducing greater flexibility into the apprenticeship levy and offering adequate incentives for firms can allow business to create more opportunities for young people and help school and college leavers get into work.

“Ensuring high-quality careers education will be crucial to reducing the long-term impacts of the pandemic on youth unemployment, and we are pleased to be supporting North East Ambition to help schools and colleges to develop their careers programmes.

“Furthermore, we are working in collaboration with The Careers & Enterprise Company to launch a platform later this year to help businesses engage with schools, which will help young people make informed career choices and prepare for the world of work.”