Once in every generation, at least, the government panics about a perceived skills shortage in the UK economy. It’s a crisis. Everybody gets blamed. A report is commissioned. Reforms are proposed. A new quango is established. Deadlines are set. Not much seems to change. Then there is another panic... And so it is once more. In 2004 the Government commissioned Lord Leitch to undertake a review of the UK's long term skills needs. The final report of the Leitch Review of Skills, "Prosperity for all in the global economy - world class skills", was published in December 2006. The review claims that the British economy could enjoy an £80bn boost over the next 30 years by a radical transformation of training and skills programmes. However, according to Lord Leitch, Britain is currently on course for "lingering decline", lagging behind competitors such as the United States and Germany and facing new challenges from China and India.
What’s the problem? The review records that, in a league table of 30 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the UK is 17th on low skills, 20th on intermediate skills and 11th on high skills. Furthermore, five million adults in the UK lack functional literacy, 17 million adults in the UK have difficulty with numbers and more than one in six young people leave school unable to read, write or add up properly.
Why should this be of concern to readers of ALT-N? Apart from the associated issues of social injustice associated with low skills and which Leitch highlights, implementation of the report’s recommendations would affect all sectors of education and training. But don’t get too excited too soon. Rather be depressed. Try a word search of the report. You won’t be surprised by the 113 uses of ‘global/globalisation’, or (given who commissioned the report) the 21 ‘Treasury’ name checks.
But try some others. New technology? Two. e-Learning? Zero - the same result as for ICT, digital economy or networked economy… And just to show even more reflection of the zeitgeist there are zero references to cultural industries, cultural regeneration, creative industries, social networking, climate change, ecology and sustainable development. The word ‘culture’ is used exclusively within the phrase ‘a culture of learning’. The latest New Labour favourite, ‘personalised learning’, does not make it either.
However, there are 724 references to employers. Not surprising as employers (or their organisations) are set to be given lead responsibility for change. This is reassuring - isn’t it? The very cynical might say that giving responsibility for skills development to Farepak, or Halliburton, is not the brightest idea. The theory (espoused by both Tories and Labour) goes something like this: we have fewer people with qualifications than selected other countries. This results in lower productivity; the answer to this problem is something called a demand-led system which means putting employers (who know all about skills development) in the driving seat. Further education colleges (22 references) should forget any community mission and specialise in areas decided by employers. Thus, if Leitch is adopted, all adult further education funding will be ‘demand-led’ through Train to Gain for employers and Learner Accounts for individuals.
To be fair to Leitch the theory is extended to universities (48 references including to the social inequality of university entrance) and schools (60). The review calls for improved engagement between employers and universities and increased co-funded workplace degrees. It notes that the new 14 -19 diploma must succeed in increasing participation post-16 and 17 or the government will impose legislation for compulsory full or part-time education or training until age 18.
So why will Leitch – even if the review withstands the outcomes of the Lyons report on local government – disappear like so many of its predecessors? First, its faith in employers is misplaced and will result in a corruption of the role of educational institutions. Research and our everyday experiences repeatedly show that, although there are many companies for which skills enhancement forms part of business planning, there are others which base their plans on driving down labour costs and/or other elements of productivity (see for example, the work of the SKOPE ESRC Research Centre). Furthermore, the review hitches itself to the globalisation bandwagon: “Prosperity for all in the global economy”. Unfortunately, globalisation does not work like that. It is not some ‘perfect market’ where beneficial outputs come from sensible inputs. It is transnational corporations using influence and political connections to have their way. It is also billions of people in the world’s slums (Davis, 2006) who are effectively surplus to requirements.
Finally, Leitch misses the opportunity to tackle fundamental curriculum reform. Apart from issues about how ‘demand-led’ skills might be defined, the central problem of the English education and training system is its class-based nature: this is not grasped. The government’s response at school level has typically been institutional: introducing academies and supposed parental choice. The review proposes reformed qualifications but what it does not do is attempt to break through the social and economic barriers between sectors and between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. Ultimately equity and real change will only come if all learning (skills, knowledge, and understanding) is mapped to a common universal framework in which the levels and performance criteria reflect the amount and difficulty of achievement. (The review does mention credit but only once and in the context of its own interpretation of qualifications reform.)
The essential problem with Leitch is its dreary view of existence. As Robert Kennedy said, "… The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” (Kennedy, n.d)
Kevin Donovan: http://www.kevindonovan.co.uk