Closing London’s skills gaps: remembering poverty and thinking differently

The government is about to introduce a national levy on larger companies to pay for apprenticeships. These are seen as part of the solution to skills shortages that affect the while country, London included. The policy was the subject of a Resolution Foundation event that took place this morning at Queen Anne’s Gate, though discussion also ranged across the wider issues of vocational study as a whole, motivating teenagers who are bored with classroom learning and bringing clarity and consistent quality to the bewildering array of post-16 and adult education schemes that currently exist.

I asked the expert panel a London-centric question, mindful, as ever, of the capital’s distinctive economic and social character and the particular ways in which weaknesses in skills development manifest themselves here. In line with a manifesto commitment, Sadiq Khan’s team has been setting up a taskforce called Skills for Londoners with a view to improving the situation here. What did the panel think the mayor’s priorities should be and how could London as a whole contribute to making things better?

I got some interesting answers. Here’s one of them, from David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges:

I spent many years with Ken [Livingstone] and then Boris [Johnson] on what was the London Schools and Employment Board – a forerunner of the skills taskforce, really. The big issue, which I think the employers never really got to grips and those two mayors didn’t get to grips with with was the polarisation of the workforce and the labour market. It’s a global labour market. You can bring people in with the skills at high level and it’s much easier and it’s much cheaper to do that for an employer.

I think what the mayor needs to do is persuade employers to think differently – and maybe Brexit will be the nudge for that – about the pathways that young people and adults will need to move into those level 3, 4 and 5 jobs in the future. Because there’s a massive gulf between where lots of people are, often in service sector jobs with pretty low level qualifications and skills, and the jobs people are filling from literally around the world. If we could get employers to see that differently….Some are doing it. I think PwC are starting to think about employing 18-year-olds rather than graduates. So let’s get more of that type of innovation.

Sandra McNally from the London School of Economics made a very specific suggestion:

In terms of the mayor’s priorities, I’d like him to have an Apprenticeships for London website where everybody can go and find out about all the apprenticeships available in London in one place. The [government] industrial strategy talks about a UCAS for apprenticeships, and we don’t have that now. That would be a fantastic thing if they were able to do it.

Also on the panel was John Cridland, formerly director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and now chair of Transport for the North. He said:

London has one big advantage, of course, which is that state school performance levels are so much higher than they were ten years ago and so much higher than in other parts of the country.  You build skills from good education and you’ve got the foundations right in London, so I hesitate to say what should be done next. But in a community as multicultural and multi-faceted as London, the emphasis always has to be on inclusiveness. The inclusiveness agenda on skills is, I think, where I would ask the mayor to focus.

Afterwards, he found a minute to elaborate:

We tend to think of London as a very rich community. We forget at our peril that some of the greatest poverty and disadvantage is in London. My point about inclusiveness is that there are lots of people who have come from other parts of the world, where they’ve not had the opportunity to get qualifications as a currency for their careers. What I think is really impressive in London is when you see somebody who has, perhaps, come from Africa and has no qualifications which are recognised in this country, getting the chance to get on that skills escalator and have their competencies recognised. London is strong on education and skills – as a representative of the Northern Powerhouse I think we have some work to do to catch up. But we should never forget that within London there are pockets of people who have been closed out of the system.

The wider context for those responses is that although London has a strong, resilient and growing economy, about 700,000 Londoners are out of work, youth unemployment is particularly high and in-work poverty is on the rise. The capital’s children are leaving its schools with excellent exam results and many go on to university, but too many who don’t find it hard to get the training and qualifications they most need to help them get fulfilling, decently-paid jobs. The mayor has pledged to get to grips with putting that right. I will writing more about that issue very soon.

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  1. Sadiq Khan announces new drive to improve Londoners’ skills training – Dave Hill ON LONDON

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