A ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ – great, until you read the small print

The shameful gap between the soaring rhetoric of policy announcements and the sordid reality of what is implemented has become one of the defining features of this government. The headline examples are of course the ‘oven ready deal’ that took 12 months to get anywhere near the oven, and the ‘world beating’ track and trace system which only beats the rest of the world in terms of its expense. A further instance is the ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’, announced as something grand by the prime minister in September but progressively diminished by detailed restrictions ever since.

Investing in lifelong learning, as implied by a skills guarantee, is a good idea. As jobs and businesses are destabilised by Covid-19, and then threatened even more by the self-harm of Brexit, there are pressing needs.  There is a need for employees to be supported to retrain, and a need to help employers find the skills required for the industries of the future. This is what was promised; but instead of an ambitious programme that rises to the scale of the challenge, what is being rolled out amounts to little better than tokenism.

A ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ is fine – but what will students live on?

I wrote in a previous article about the unnecessary limits on who could participate in the scheme. No-one, for example, holding A levels or their equivalent will be eligible for the guarantee, regardless of how outdated or irrelevant their qualifications are. Although course fees will be waived for the few who fit the criteria, there are no plans for maintenance support that would allow adults to support themselves while they study. I also predicted that Whitehall would be unable to resist the temptation to restrict provision to what those at the centre think the economy needs: and that has indeed come about.

One of the mysteries of public policy is why those who frequently rail against the so-called ‘nanny state’ abandon all such inhibitions when prescribing what it is that ordinary people should be able to study. According to the Department for Education (DfE) people supported by the skills guarantee will be able to study engineering and construction, but not courses leading to careers in a range of important sectors including travel and tourism, hospitality, catering, sports, leisure and recreation. They could study child development, but not crafts or creative arts and design. Whitehall apparently knows better than students, better than employers and better than colleges.

Many of the excluded sectors make vital contributions to the economy of the south-west so it is important to understand how the decision to side-line them was reached. There is no official explanation, other than the bland assertion that the scheme focuses on qualifications that ’employers value’, but a good piece of investigation by the specialist publication FE Week has produced a very credible account. According to leaked documents seen by that paper, civil servants looked at the wages earned by people holding different qualifications and selected those where earnings were highest. They then added in a few more that didn’t meet these criteria but the mandarins thought they should.

It says a lot about current government priorities that their decisions were based almost entirely on evidence of earnings. Individuals are interested in potential earnings of course but in addition most people want to take account of the intrinsic nature of the job, its value to society and the ability to fit work around other obligations. For many, a crucial factor is whether a job is available locally. Offering training for well paid jobs in London is no help to someone who wants, for whatever reason, to remain in the south-west.

A focus on higher wages inevitably leads to a focus on those jobs found in the better paid urban centres rather than those in rural areas and coastal towns. It also leads to a focus on jobs that are normally undertaken by men. Occupations with higher wages tend to be those where the workforce is mainly male. It surely can’t have escaped the notice of those in the DfE that their list of ‘high value courses’ – those for which colleges get extra funding because they lead to higher wages – reads like a list of stereotypically male occupations: engineering, manufacturing, IT, building and construction. Contrast that list with sectors excluded from support under the skills guarantee – catering, hospitality, retail, craft and creative arts – sectors which employ large numbers of women. For many people, particularly in the south-west, the guarantee might sound great but the small print makes it worthless.

Once again, a flagship government programme turns out to be slick in terms of PR but shabby in terms of practice. The ‘Skills Guarantee’ might just help if you are male, metropolitan, and driven by money, but for most people it’s just another empty gesture.