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Holes in the UK skills system - and how to fill them

£4 billion of public spending is not delivering the skills needed for a thriving economy.

That was the finding of a report published by the Public Accounts Committee this week. Developing workforce skills for a strong economy centres on training for workforce skills in England, mostly delivered by the Department for Education (DfE) with employers’ support. It argues that our skills system is ineffective for economic growth and that certain disadvantaged groups are not participating in skills training.

The critical role of essential skills

Skills Builder Partnership agrees that the current skills system is not adequately boosting life outcomes for many in the UK nor is it sufficiently driving economic growth, and that a step change is needed. 

The first step would be to recognise the critical importance of essential skills: those highly transferable skills that almost everyone needs to do almost any job and which support the application of technical skills and knowledge. Across the Skills Builder Partnership we define these skills as: listening and speaking; creativity and problem solving; aiming high and staying positive; and teamwork and leadership.

Essential skills are correlated with better life outcomes, from increased wellbeing and higher earnings to a lower probability of being out of work or education. Our Essential Skills Tracker found 81% of UK adults who had opportunities to build essential skills have above average abilities such as problem solving and communicating. This equates to an annual salary boost of up to £5,900 or just under £500 a month – similar to a graduate premium. Their risk of being not in employment or education is also reduced by more than half. 

The research also found an overwhelming 89% of individuals believe essential skills to be important for employment, career progression or success in a recruitment process.

We strongly recommend that essential skills are incorporated into skills training as part of any reforms to skills training, and should not be crowded out by focusing on basic literacy and numeracy skills, important though they are, or specific technical skills.

Unequal access to opportunities

The Public Accounts Committee report finds that there has been a “dramatic fall in participation in further education and skills training among disadvantaged groups”. The total number of participants in government-funded further education (FE) and skills training in the 20% most disadvantaged areas of England fell by 39% between 2015-16 and 2020-21 (down by 280,100 participants). 

In our Essential Skills Tracker we term this the ‘skills trap’: it is the most disadvantaged individuals that are least likely to benefit from having opportunities at school to build the essential skills that give improved life outcomes. This lack of opportunity leads to a lack of value placed on them, reduced future opportunities to build those skills, lower skill score, lower income and lower life satisfaction.

Economic growth should avoid leaving anyone behind. A skills system that includes essential skills must also prioritise those who fall into the ‘skills trap’.  

Creating a more coherent approach

The report gestures towards an excessive “multiplicity of government skills programmes”, posing difficulties “for employers and individuals to navigate to the training that best meets their needs”. 

It is exactly this sort of challenge that drove the development of the Skills Builder Universal Framework for essential skills. The Framework breaks down transferable skills that are broad and slightly nebulous into tightly defined essential skills and steps which can be taught, learnt and assessed sequentially. It has been adopted by more than 850 cross-sector organisations, from sports clubs to law firms. Through the Partnership, 87% of secondary schools and colleges in the country have a touchpoint with the Skills Builder approach

The Skills Builder Framework has also been backed in the Government’s Statutory Careers Guidance in England, as well as being recommended for delivery of T-Levels and for the development of new apprenticeship standards by IFATE.

If the Government were to adopt this Framework as a universal model, they would strengthen uniformity and coherency, building participants’ familiarity and rallying everyone around a shared language. Adopting such a Framework, with common metrics to measure progress, would also resolve inconsistencies around assessing programmes’ efficacy. By using the Framework consistently across education and employment, the skills learned and discussed in the classroom join up with those in the workplace. We would create a lifelong journey of essential skills development. 

The role of employers 

Our Essential Skills Tracker found that employers felt candidates and employees lacked the essential skills that they require.  Employers’ showed an almost unanimous appetite for essential skills, with 91% of managers citing them as important for productivity. However, the Public Accounts Committee report found that employers now spend “less than they used to on workforce training, which risks leaving the economy without the skills it needs”. 

There is a mismatch between the skills needed and the skills development being provided by employers.  Yet looking within the Skills Builder Partnership there are many brilliant examples of employers playing their part and proactively using the Skills Builder Framework to develop essential skills of their workforce. This would be even more powerful if they felt that their actions were being reinforced by being part of a coherent system and with a common language of universal skills, shared with Government funded programmes, that could translate between organisations and roles.  

HS2 and PwC are two members of the Skills Builder Partnership and great examples of programmes developing essential skills from education into employment. HS2  joined Skills Builder Partnership in 2018 to use the Framework within STEM workshops and work experience, and have further rolled out the Framework into its future talent programmes, apprenticeship and graduate schemes, and volunteering. 

PwC has a key focus on social mobility, offering a range of outreach initiatives and programmes. Several of its partner schools had already adopted the Framework and suggested there was an opportunity for even greater impact by using a common language with a tight focus on specific skills in outreach programmes. Using Skills Builder Benchmark, a tool for individuals to self assess their essential skills, PwC were able to measure skill levels as well as progress. Pre- and post-activity analysis of the participants’ Benchmark data showed a significant improvement across all of the essential skills. Several students have been offered places on PwC’s apprenticeships following the programme.

Finding a collective approach 

This report from the Public Accounts Committee strongly adds to the discourse around the skills we need to build a stronger economy. As the report itself highlights, it is clear that we need a universal approach that involves local and national authorities and organisations, as well as education institutions and businesses. 

Our research shows that essential skills should be a critical part of any government skills programmes as they boost life outcomes, from increased wellbeing and higher earnings to a lower probability of being out of work or education. 

The challenge to the Government is to address the inequalities in access to those opportunities that the Committee report identifies. Part of the solution to this is to use Skills Builder Universal Framework throughout the different programmes on offer and create a universal language.  

Government skills programmes need not work alone. The 850 partners of Skills Builder Partnership, working across education, employment, and impact organisations, have shown just how powerful collective action and collaboration can be. In 2021-22, the Partnership delivered 2.3 million opportunities for individuals to build their essential skills and boost their life outcomes, and thus bolster the UK economy.

Now this model of collective impact must be adopted at scale, with cross-sector and cross-party input, if the skills system is meant to work effectively and benefit the UK economy - and everyone within it.