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Recent policies relevant to the development of workplace learning

This section gives an overview of how policy relating to the development of workplace learning has evolved in the last decade. It does not attempt to be comprehensive and official sites give the details associated with policy implementation - here you will get a sense of how exhoratation and policy have evolved.

The 'Ambition 2020' Report published by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is their first annual assessment of the progress towards making the UK a world leader in employment and skills by 2020. It monitors progress on the World Class Skills and Jobs Ambition against international competitors in the context of (i) the 'Leitch' Ambition for 2020; and (ii) the aims and priorities for the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It seeks to provide a sound evidence base for advice on strategies, policies and measures needed to increase skills, employment and productivity. This first report also provides a baseline from which to assess future progress. This development could also be seen in a wider European context, as in December 2008, the European Commission launched its 'New Skills for New Jobs' agenda, putting the development of skills at the heart of the European jobs and prosperity agenda.

In January 2009 the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee published Re-skilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies (First Report of Session 2008–09: Volume I). The following critique appeared well-founded: 'Lord Leitch published his review of skills two years ago, in December 2006. It set out ambitious targets for ‘upskilling’ the UK population which the Government adopted enthusiastically. But since then the economic climate has worsened, and our evidence was taken at a time when the thrust of skills policy was already under review. Some of the evidence we took questioned the fundamental philosophy of Lord Leitch’s prescriptions, particularly at a time when people are moving between different types of employment, not just looking to increase their overall skills levels. Reskilling, rather than upskilling, is increasingly becoming the norm and it is our view that targets and the Government’s allocation of resources must change to reflect that' (p. 3).

In October 2008, Ewart Keep placed current policies on skills and performance in a historical and international context in From Competence and Competition to the Leitch Review: the utility of comparative analyses of skills and performance. In September 2008 Caroline Mager of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) published a policy briefing on The world we’re in – the policy context for FE and skills and for LSIS for discussion. That briefing could be seen in the context of proposed public service reform, as in June 2008, the government published ‘Excellence and fairness: achieving world-class public services,’ which argues that world class services are characterised by excellent outcomes, personalised approaches, fairness and equity and value for money. It argued that a core purpose of world class services should be to reduce inequality and that strategies are required that lead to a ‘new professionalism’, which unlocks the creativity and ambition of staff in order to develop more responsive and innovative services. Finally, the paper sees a new role for strategic leadership in the sector, with the government arguing that it will draw back from the micromanagement of service delivery, taking on a more strategic leadership role, giving greater scope for service leaders to take a localised approach which is more likely to deliver the responsiveness desired by citizens. If the government were to implement this there would be an increased need to support the role of professional judgement for managers and practitioners in the develolpment of workplace learning and a consequent reduction in the use of over-centralised targets. The key question, however, is whether such a goal is aspirational or whether it represents a shift in recognising the importance of professional judgment.

In June 2008 the Secretaries of State of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills presented Work Skills to Parliament. This paper set out how government intended to help people take control of their skills needs and support employers to get the skilled workforce they need. One of the key Leitch recommendations to make the skills system more demand-led, with a strong voice for employers had been the creation of a powerful, employer-led UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a strategic advisory body, which was formally launched on 1st April 2008. A short introduction to the work of the Commission emphasises how the UK's national employment and skills systems should optimally serve the twin goals of economic competitiveness and social cohesion.

Earlier developments included the July 2007 Leitch Implementation Plan. The House of Commons Education and Skills Committee published a report in August 2007 on Post-16 Skills that was broadly supportive of government policy but raised a number of concerns about the direction of current policy: 'The Government’s approach to skills is one predicated on a direct relationship between prosperity—both social and economic—and skills. Our evidence suggests that skills are only part of a very complex equation, and simply boosting training will not necessarily lead to increased prosperity—particularly in economic terms. What is needed is more coherent support for employers to develop their businesses as a whole, addressing skills needs alongside other issues such as capital investment, innovation and workforce planning. This should be coupled with a much stronger focus on management skills than is currently the case. Improving the national stock of qualifications has been a central aim of skills policy—and Lord Leitch’s ambitions are also framed in these terms. However, an increased national stock of qualifications will not necessarily be an accurate indicator of an increased national stock of skills. What is more, the tying of funding to courses leading to full qualifications goes directly against what many employers and individuals say would be of most benefit to them—'bite-sized' learning that can be built up over time. The new Qualifications and Credit Framework, which makes it possible to accumulate units over time is very welcome, but needs also to be accompanied by more flexible, responsive funding' (p. 3).

The 2007 Learning and Skills Council (LSC) funding consultation proposed most adult funding go through an 'employer-responsive model' (such as the Train to Gain Programme) or a 'learner-responsive model' (such as Individual Learning Accounts). More competition among providers is proposed for the 16–19 phase. The Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) launched 'Pursuing Excellence', a national Improvement Strategy for the FE sector. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) launched the Qualifications and Credit Framework, as a way of recognising achievement through awarding credit for units and qualifications. The Lyons Inquiry on 'Promoting prosperity' had also been published, but the relationship between the Leitch and Lyons recommendations were unclear, especially in relation to the part to be played by different stakeholders in providing leadership and direction to skills policy at different levels of the Learning and Skills System.

In December 2006, Lord Leitch had published his final report into UK Skills: for the full report, see:Prosperity for all in the global economy – World class skills. A Summary of the Leitch review: a roadmap directing the UK towards world class skills gives a concise summary interpretation of the report. An earlier review of UK skills and education strategy was commissioned by DfES from the Work Foundation in December 2004 and the report 'Where are the gaps? An Analysis of UK Skills and Education Strategy in the light of the Kok Group and European Commission Midterm Review of the Lisbon goals' by Will Hutton and The Work Foundation was published in March 2005. The Kok Group report, 'Facing the Challenge: The Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Employment' was published in November 2004 and challenged European governments to revitalise and accelerate their plans to create the architecture for a knowledge economy.

David Ashton and Johnny Sung J (2006) in How Competitive Strategy matters. Understanding the Drivers of Training, Learning and Performance at Firm Level argue that much policy thinking in this area did not understand the drivers of training and the links between skills, management practices and performance.

Earlier policies relevant to the development of workplace learning (2001 – 2005)

Other recent policy developments are examined going back to the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit’s project on workforce development in 2001. That project had made it clear that the UK’s longstanding difficulties with vocational education and training are the result of a complex web of circumstances, environmental factors and incentive structures that interact in complex ways.

'Skills: Getting on in business, getting on at work' White Paper (2005)

The 'Skills: Getting on in business, getting on at work' White Paper (2005) built on the Government’s 2003 Skills Strategy, and contained more details on plans to make employers' needs central to vocational education and training and how individuals would be supported to gain the appropriate skills and qualifications. The intention was to:

  • Put employers’ needs centre stage in the design and delivery of training (through the delivery of a new National Employer Training Programme: free training in the workplace in basic skills and Level 2; and the development of Sector Skills Agreements)
  • Support individuals in gaining the skills and qualifications they need to achieve the quality of life they want (through promoting a clear, attractive ladder of progression; with a national entitlement to free tuition for a first full Level 2 qualification and new extensive support for learning at Level 3; a new one-stop telephone and on-line advice service; reforming the supply of skills through building the capacity of colleges and other training providers to deliver benefits for employers and individuals; and for QCA to develop a Framework for Achievement – a clear, simple qualification structure for individuals and employers – in order to support 14-19 and adult reforms.

The 'Skills: Getting on in business, getting on at work' White Paper (2005) was published in three parts that are available from the following links:

Part 1 (overview);
Part 2 (more detailed and technical explanation of each major component of the Strategy, and how it will be implemented);
Part 3 (‘a technical paper sets out the most recent evidence and historical trends on how we are better meeting our skill needs. It provides a background and context for understanding the skills issues and policies set out in Parts 1 and 2 of the Skills White Paper. It focuses on trends on:

  • labour supply including those related to gender, age and ethnic group;
  • adult participation in learning including differences in gender, age and ethnicity;
  • the value of qualifications including differences in the rate of return to different qualifications;
  • Level 2 qualifications including differences by age, ethnicity, region and sector of employment;
  • Level 3 qualifications including differences by age, ethnicity, region and sector of employment; and
  • Higher Education including differences by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic group).

‘21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential’ White Paper (2003)
The Skills Strategy White Paper (‘21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential’) (2003) outlined government policy towards skill development, with the aim to ensure that employers have the right skills to support the success of their businesses, and that individuals have the skills they need to be both employable and personally fulfilled. The approach was mainly exhortatory: 'it is not for Government to tell private business what products and services to invest in. But it is the Government’s role to offer support to businesses to increase productivity and invest in innovation, so that they stand the best chance of success. That means encouraging and helping employers to invest in skills and training in a more strategic way, linked to business strategies, human resource strategies and product-market strategies' (Skills Strategy 2003: 1.15). The intention was to work with employers and employees in order to:

  • Give employers greater choice and control over the publicly-funded training they receive and how it is delivered. Evaluation of the current Employer Training Pilots will inform the development of future national programmes to support skills training.
  • Provide better information for employers about the quality of local training by introducing an Employer Guide to Good Training.
  • Improve training and development for management and leadership, particularly in small firms centred around the new Investors in People management and leadership model.
  • Develop business support services to ensure that employers have better access to the advice and help they want, from the sources best placed to provide it, bringing in a wider range of intermediaries.
  • Expand and strengthen the network of Union Learning Representatives as a key plank in encouraging the low skilled to engage in training.

For individual learners, the focus was on free tuition for a 'level 2' qualification; increased for 'level 3' qualifications in areas of sectoral or regional skill priority; providing better information, advice and guidance on skills, training and qualifications; and improving basic skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT in the Skills for Life programme. There was also provision to develop the Sector Skills Council network, with the Councils being seen as a major new voice for employers and employees in each major sector of the economy. The Sector Skills Councils were also intended to be major contributors at regional as well as national level. There is a strong regional dimension to the skills problem. Variations in the skills base of the regions are a major factor in explaining regional variations in productivity. Regional Development Agencies lead in producing Frameworks for Regional Employment and Skills Action (FRESAs) designed to address the skills and employment needs of employers and individuals in the regions within an economic, demographic and social context.

There was also an intention to reform the qualifications framework (strengthen and extend Modern Apprenticeships; review, through the work of the Tomlinson group, the vocational routes available to young people; unitise qualifications for adults; introduce a credits framework for adults) and to raise the effectiveness of further education colleges and training providers (by reforming the funding arrangements for adult learning and skills; supporting the development of e-learning across further education; helping colleges build their capability to offer a wider range of business support for local employers; and broadening the range of training providers, by bringing within the scope of public funding those private providers who have something distinctive and high quality to offer). The Government recognised that they must lead by example, showing that delivery agencies can work more effectively together at national, regional and local level in providing coherent services for skills, business support and the labour market, including through the formation of a national Skills Alliance, bringing together the key Government departments with employer and union representatives in a new social partnership, and linking the key delivery agencies in a concerted drive to raise skills.

The Government’s Skills Strategy (21st Century Skills: Realising our Potential), was published on 9 July 2003. Its implementation is being driven by a partnership of Government, employers, unions and skills delivery agencies, known collectively as the Skills Alliance. Regular updates on progress on implementation continue to be available from the Skills Strategy website.

'In Demand: Adult skills in the 21st century' The Cabinet Performance and Innovation Unit report (2002)

The Cabinet Performance and Innovation Unit report on 'In Demand: Adult skills in the 21st century' set out a framework to make skills training and development more responsive to the needs of businesses and employees. In November 2001 and November 2002 the Cabinet Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) published parts one and two of In Demand: Adult skills in the 21st century. The second report, as part of a project on workforce development, provided a critical review of the problems faced in trying to address complex problems outlined in the first report (note copy of full report available at the end of this section). This report made clear that the UK’s longstanding difficulties with vocational education and training appear to be the result of a complex web of circumstances, environmental factors and incentive structures that interact in ways that are anything but simple. In other words, what policy makers are faced with is a form of systems failure. If this is the case, effective policies have to be grounded in a full appreciation of the tangled and often complex inter-relationships that underlie current conditions.

The report also pointed out that experience over the last two decades indicates that the problems surrounding skill development at work are extremely difficult to solve. After at least a century of concern, and two decades of intensive intervention in all aspects of skill policy, the remaining problems will not be easy to resolve – particularly those that have defeated successive policy initiatives and reforms. The history of the last twenty years of policy formation is littered with well-intentioned but narrowly targeted interventions that were meant to deal with a discrete failing or weakness. All too often the result was that the intervention or scheme sank as a result of striking the unseen bulk of the wider problem, particularly in terms of incentive structures and the attitudes they support.

It may be that at present there is a greater willingness among 'key players' in the policy community (e.g. DTI, DIUS, Treasury, LSC, SSDA and SSCs, and RDAs) to collaborate. This could lead to a focus upon some of the broader forces and incentives, and a willingness to work with other partners to evolve less narrowly-focused solutions. One way forward may be to look at issues of competitiveness and innovation, workplace employment relations, work organisation and job design together. This was the line of argument adopted in the PIU Workforce Development project, when it suggested there might be a need to help stimulate long-term demand for skills within employment and to ensure that those skills are then used to maximum productive effect. It is important not to underestimate the scale of the challenge that such a more integrated approach poses to the policy community.


One further issue here is how far previous policies have not always been faulty per se, but rather there have been problems in the translation dynamics in trying to move from a policy context to an implementation context. For example, the sector skills councils are yet another attempt to give employers a collective voice in skill development policy and implementation. However, even if individual employers are involved the UK still has weak employer networks and this poses fundamental challenges as to how to implement policy in practice.
In this area there is also an issue about how far removed is economic reality from the rhetoric espoused by governments: see, for example, 'In an age where knowledge is a key competitive weapon', and skills and learning are at the centre of government policy aimed at creating a high skill, high wage economy (from A Smart, Successful Scotland, Scottish Executive, 2001). It could also be that some policy interventions are intended to be primarily symbolic – the government is associating itself with an aspiration or being seen to be attempting to do something positive, influencing the representation of policy.

It is also worth pointing out that the PIU (2002) analysis highlighting the nature of the skills problem suggested a deep-seated set of structural factors and, critically, a lack of adequate demand for skills, was a significant break with earlier analyses. The PIU suggestion of stimulating demand for skills by impacting on wider business strategies was unusual in that, as Keep (2003) points out, "the general direction of policy across the whole UK over the last twenty years has been to concentrate attention and resources upon the development of a supply-side skills revolution, whereby a step change (or in reality series of changes) in the supply of skills – largely through expansion of the tertiary education system – will enable the transition to our becoming a knowledge driven economy (KDE). Major elements of this strategy have included:

  • Massive expansion of post-compulsory education
  • Massive expansion of higher education
  • Massive and unceasing changes to the organisational structures that plan, manage and fund VET
  • Attempts to reform and revitalise a work-based route for initial VET
  • Reform of qualifications and of the qualifications structure (still ongoing)
  • Increasing central government control of all aspects of VET.

As the author and many others have observed on countless occasions, there has been very little attempt to link these reforms with any wider economic development agenda, or to draw any meaningful connections between skills policy and issues such as employee relations systems, work organisation, job design, or quality of working life. Indeed, the argument from policy makers has been that skills and skills alone will provide a sufficient lever to generate the economic transformation that is desired (see, for instance, H. M. Treasury (2002), which argues that the UK can escape from a low skills equilibrium simply by the government supporting more skills creation)" (Keep, 2003, pp 12-13).


Keep, E. (2003) TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD – SOME THOUGHTS ON THE 'HIGH SKILLS VISION', AND ON WHERE POLICY IS REALLY TAKING US, Paper presented to the SKOPE High Skills Conference, Cable and Wireless College, Coventry, September 2003.
Performance and Innovation Unit (2002) In Demand: Adult skills for the 21st century, London: The Cabinet Office.
Scottish Executive (2001) A Smart, Successful Scotland, Edinburgh: Scottish Executive.