A Minister for change?

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Government's role in addressing the skills crisis is vital and, according to John Hayes MP, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is 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 with which many in the manufacturing sector would certainly agree. However, they could at the same time be forgiven for a certain weary scepticism, given that the manufacturing sector has been warning of a looming skills shortage for 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."

The economic crisis and the consequent need to support manufacturing has 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, 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, according to Hayes, by a fundamental re-thinking of the educational system. "The issue does start early," he says. "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… 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 those 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 twelve 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 preconceptions in the UK aboutmanufacturing and engineering. He says: "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, saying: "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."

This disparity between the education system and the needs of business is an area where the Minister 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.

"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."

Hayes is under no illusions as to the scale of the task that still confronts this Government. He says: "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. But we've made a good and early start."

Skilled operator

First elected to Parliament as the Member for South Holland and The Deepings in 1997, John Hayes served as a member of both the Agriculture and Education Select Committees before joining the Conservative front bench.

He was made Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for campaigning, in 1999; became Shadow Schools Minister in 2000; and - following the 2001 Election - Assistant Opposition Chief Whip. From 2002 to 2003 he was a member of the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, having initially headed the political section of the Office of the Leader of the Opposition for whom he was also a speechwriter.

From 2003 to 2005 he was Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning, and then Shadow Minister for Transport in 2005.

Hayes was made Shadow Minister for Vocational Education in 2005, and from 2007 to 2010 he added higher education to his portfolio, serving as Shadow Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education.

Joining the new Government in May 2010, John was appointed Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In addition, in July 2010 he became a Minister of State in the Department for Education with particular responsibility for apprenticeships, careers guidance and vocational education.

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