03 November 2010
Government's role in addressing the skills crisis is vital and, according to skills minister John Hayes, it's one it will not shirk. Paul Fanning reports
"Practical learning has been neglected in Britain for a long time. Despite politicians in the last government paying lip service to it, I'm not sure we've actually made sufficient progress. We need a step change in terms of skills."
These are surely words which many in the manufacturing sector would certainly be delighted to hear from a government minister. However, they could at the same time be forgiven for a certain weary scepticism, given that manufacturers have been warning of a looming skills shortage for the best part of two decades, only to see governments fail to address the issue.
This is a perception of government that John Hayes MP, minister of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is seeking to change, starting with a fundamental shift of perceptions about practical skills. "The new government represents a departure in that respect from previous assumptions," he says. "For too long we've assumed that book learning is more important than the work of people's hands."
But Hayes does not feel that the impact of this cultural bias has been limited to the economy. Indeed, he believes it to have had negative consequences for society as a whole. "This government understands that practical and technical education in fields like engineering is critically important to our economy – for all those individuals whose life chances have changed through the acquisition of those skills and the employment they gain as a result, and actually to our community, too. If you undermine the worth of practical skills, you weaken society, because it is only when each feels valued that all feel valued."
The economic crisis and the consequent need to support manufacturing have served to crystallise these issues in the mind of government, something Hayes is quick to acknowledge. "There's a recognition that, coming out of an economic crisis, the only way that Britain can only succeed is as a high-tech, high-skill economy," he says. " So in a sense, what the challenges of the new economy have done is catalysed a new imperative; a new understanding that, unless we improve productivity and competitiveness through building a high-skill, high-tech economy, we won't succeed as a nation."
As a host of engineering organisations and manufacturing companies have made clear of late, the skills shortage in manufacturing is now critical. On this point, Hayes is under no illusions about the scale of the problem. In addition, to his role overseeing further education, skills and lifelong learning, in July 2010 he became a Minister of State in the Department for Education with particular responsibility for apprenticeships, careers guidance and vocational education.
Accordingly, he claims that the urgency of the situation is not lost on the new government. He points to the recent redeployment of £150 million of Train to Gain funding into adult apprenticeships to create 50,000 places, but emphasises that this is only the beginning of the government's plans.
"Our aim is to create 50,000 more apprenticeships and it's not unreasonable to assume that a very large proportion of those will be in manufacturing and engineering. And that's just the beginning. My ambition is to have more apprenticeships than we've ever had before in Britain... I don't want to anticipate the strategy, but I think I can be fairly certain given the strong priority I put on apprenticeships – and I know the chancellor and the prime minister do, too – that apprenticeships are going to be at the heart of what we do."
Of course, apprenticeships are only of value if there are enough people available to fill them, something that can only be addressed, he says, by a fundamental rethink of the educational system. "The issue does start early.
The challenge begins at school. Today, [Education Secretary] Michael Gove will be setting out why he thinks we have to entirely rethink our approach to practical learning in schools. And – I don't mean this immodestly – but, drawing on some things I've been saying for the last five years, Michael will be signalling a new emphasis on vocational education, drawing on the history of good practical learning, which goes back to things such as guilds and apprenticeships, but also looking at how we can in the modern school environment ensure that those with a taste and an aptitude for practical learning, have a route which is as clear, a pathway which is as navigable, as that for academic learning."
In his speech to the Edge Foundation, Gove outlined the government's plans for encouraging vocational education, which included the intention to open at least 12 University Technical Colleges with a minimum of one in each major city. These colleges will take students from other schools at the age of 14. The first UTC to open will be in Aston in 2012 and pupils will specialise in engineering and manufacturing alongside core academic GCSE subjects. Students will have the opportunity to work with Aston University engineering staff and students, as well as local businesses and further education colleges.
Creating such pathways is one thing, of course. Actually getting people to follow them is another.
The fact remains that manufacturing and engineering are still not seen by many children (or their parents) as attractive career choices.
Hayes believes there is a job to be done in challenging cultural assumptions in the UK about manufacturing and engineering. "We have to challenge some of the assumptions about practical competence.
Other countries have historically done this rather better than us, so we have to detach ourselves from previous bourgeois assumptions about the character of learning.
"For too long, we've conned ourselves that all that mattered was book learning, when the work of people's hands, craft and technical skills have just as much value and deserve the same status. So there is something about the aesthetic of practical learning that has to be recalibrated in order to make that pathway seductive as well as navigable."
Another factor Hayes believes to be critical in persuading people to follow a vocational route is the quality of guidance available. Here, he believes that industry itself has a crucial role to play: "I think it's about the interface between industry and education. Making sure that what we teach or test is shaped by those in commerce and industry. It's about that interface between the world of work and the world of learning."
He continues: "We shouldn't underestimate things like work experience. We shouldn't undervalue the direct link between education and industry, but I think it's also about making sure that what's taught and tested is crafted with and for businesses in the real economy. Michael [Gove] has instituted a review of this and one of the things it's going to look at is whether the qualification frameworks are sufficiently in tune with what businesses want and need."
This disparity between the education system and the needs of business is an area where Hayes believes there has been a long-term failure by previous governments and educational authorities. "As the system became increasingly driven by the preoccupations of public policy makers, it became detached from the real needs of businesses," he says.
However, this may have more to do with attitudes within education than within society as a whole, something that encourages him to believe the problem may not be insurmountable. "If you think about the cultural assumptions about this, they're rather different to those that exist in the educational system," he claims.
"We revere in popular culture all sorts of practical skills. Brunel was voted as one of the Greatest Britons ever by popular vote. If we see Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey creating something wonderful, we think their practical skills are marvellous… But this is not reflected in the education system. So it's about making sure that there's a better marriage between popular cultural assumptions about practical skills and the education system."
He adds: "We're looking at how we route the funding for apprenticeships as part of the consultation I'm involved in and are looking at whether we need to route more of the money directly to employers. I'm also looking at how we can make supply side reforms to training to remove some of the cost barriers for employers. I'm also very keen to promote the idea of group training associations so that smaller employers are not faced with impediments in terms of costs. These are things we can specifically do to support employers in financial terms."
While such things are encouraging for those involved in manufacturing to hear, Hayes is under no illusions as to the scale of the task that still confronts this government. "I've mentioned that I want to build more apprenticeships than we've ever had before. I've mentioned that we now see skills as the heart of the policy for growth. We need to move rapidly and a long way to catch up with our competitors. The international data from OECD and others that compares us with France, Germany, the United States at both international and higher level skills, shows us that we've got a big hole to plug. Yes, I do think this is urgent and I do think there's a lot of work to be done.
But we've made a good and early start with the commitment we've made to apprenticeships. In this difficult economic time, to shift £150 million of the apprenticeship budget was no small feat and the fact that we are fundamentally looking at the skills strategy across the DfE and BIS shows that we see it as intrinsically linked to our growth plans. That I think is indicative of the seriousness we ascribe to this."
On his personal ambitions for the sector, Hayes is emphatic: "I'm a patriot and part of being a patriot is understanding not only Britain's rich industrial heritage, but the prospects for a future in terms of British industry and engineering which is as glorious as its past."
Paul Fanning is editor of WM's sister magazine Eureka
Born in Woolwich, south east London, in 1958, John Hayes was educated at Colfe's Grammar School and Nottingham University, where he graduated with a BA in Politics and a PGCE in History/English.
He was first elected to parliament as the member for South Holland and The Deepings in 1997, Hayes served as a member of both the agriculture and education select committees before joining the Conservative front bench.
In 1999, he became vice chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for campaigning. The following year, he became shadow schools minister and, following the 2001 election, was assistant opposition chief whip. From 2002 to 2003 he was shadow minister for agriculture, fisheries and food; from 2003 to 2005, shadow minister for housing and planning; and in 2005, shadow minister for transport.
Hayes was made shadow minister for vocational education in 2005 and, from 2007 to 2010, he added higher education to his portfolio.
Joining the new government in May 2010, Hayes was appointed minister of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In July, he became a minister of state in the Department for Education with responsibility for apprenticeships, careers guidance and vocational education.
This material is protected by Findlay Media copyright
One-off usage is permitted but bulk copying is not.
For multiple copies contact the