2006 - Leitch review and a new training agenda
The Leitch Review of Skills received a warm welcome from
business last week for its emphasis on creating relevant
skills in the workplace by giving employers greater influence
over vocational qualifications and training.
Instead of providing headline grabbing material, Lord Leitch
produced a considered report that sought to build on what
he acknowledged were “important strengths” within
the current system – excellent higher education, supported
by an increasingly effective school system and good vocational
The big worry for employers is that in spite of these plaudits,
the report made it clear that the UK’s skills were
still falling short of those it considered to be “world
class” in order to compete among the very best.
The Leitch report has laid out some broad challenges and
goals for raising UK skills levels. Sensibly it has focussed
on foundation skills aimed at raising functional literacy
and numeracy from 85 per cent and 80 per cent respectively
today, to 95 per cent of working age adults by 2020.
In the same way it has set ambitious but necessary targets
for minimum adult educational attainment while calling for
a doubling of apprenticeships to 500,000 and seeking high
level skills among much larger proportions of the population
than exist at present.
Too much training in the past has been rooted in practice
and theory that has not kept up with changing demands of
competition. Today these demands must be matched against
the continuing need for traditional learning.
It is right, for example, that conservative approaches
in schools should maintain concerns for joined-up writing.
But today such important skills in literacy must be accompanied
by dexterity in keyboard use.
The national curriculum continues to ignore proficiency
in handling the qwerty keyboard yet almost every child in
the country is regularly working keyboards in the classroom
from an early age. It would take one week of solid training,
every single day, to master touch-typing that would be retained
Shorthand, invaluable in learning, can be achieved just
as readily. But convention prevails, just as it does in
the teaching of traditional subjects such as history and
geography. Is knowledge of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points
at the Treaty of Versailles more useful to me than an understanding
of J M W Turner’s influence on the Impressionists?
It could be argued that neither matters much when checking
the price of apples on the counter at Tesco’s. But
an education should amount to more than churning out factory
Sadly, where newer subjects have been added to the curriculum,
too often they have followed trendy interests such as “media
studies”. The content of such courses is laughable
within the media where sound English and analytical skills
are far more highly prized.
My youngest son is taking a qualification at his secondary
school called the European Computer Driving Licence, a basic
course in computer skills. It has been introduced as a voluntary
add-on to curricular studies and carries an extra fee. He
is learning some new things but most of the skills he has
picked up already either at his previous school or through
trial and error while working on his home computer.
A course such as this should not be optional. Schools and
teachers need to be given the scope to adapt more nimbly
to changes in information technology. Whether we acknowledge
it or not, children are learning new skills all the time
and delighting in abilities they have learned through choice
rather than compulsion.
The problem is that the kind of shorthand used for mobile
phone texting is not appropriate for other written communication.
That does not make phone texting wrong but it does highlight
the necessity for such new forms of communication to be
consolidated sensibly within an education system that should
not pretend they don’t exist.
Children are publishing photographs, films, music and stories
continually in daily weblogs on internet sites such as MySpace.com
but these are too rarely recognised by teachers in classroom
When I was at school I wrote essays in textbooks and my
spellings were corrected in red ink by the teacher. Today,
on screen, my writing is corrected continually by a spell
checker and I learn from the corrections. Teachers still
need to teach grammatical form but it can be applied everywhere,
including the on-line spaces visited increasingly by young
Lord Leitch was right to emphasise employer needs in vocational
training, recognising that many existing vocational qualifications
are simply not delivering value. But he might have gone
further in highlighting the inability among some employers
to understand their own needs until they have been eclipsed
by competitors that are emerging like mushrooms.
Recreationally children and adults alike are learning many
new internet skills outside classrooms, often from each
other or by following web-based instructions. The designer
who created and maintains my own web site, along with many
others, is entirely self-taught, learning his skills from
The additional skills he needs now are those associated
with expanding a business. Thousands of people in the UK
are in the same position, craving the basic business skills
that will complement their entrepreneurial ventures.
Some of these skills are embedded in numeracy but you wouldn’t
think so from classroom teaching. The Pythagoras theorem
is important in many types of work such as engineering and
technical design. So is algebra. But of universal importance
in business is an understanding of percentages.
Almost every new graduate today is emerging from university
with debt. But how many of them understand its fundamentals?
No-one should leave university today without a grasp of
compound interest yet too many students remain starved of
basic financial and life skills.
The Leitch report is an important addition to the organisation
of skills training in the UK. It underlines the causal link
between stronger educational input and higher economic output
and companies have been placed on notice that they neglect
training at their peril.
Some employers might question one conclusion that, as course
and qualification provision improves, teenagers should remain
in full or part-time education or workplace training up
to the age of 18. If compulsion is handled sensibly with
focused and relevant vocational training available in line
with employer needs, the UK should benefit from rising skill
Improving skills, however, will be matched by rising expectations.
How will employers and trainers manage trainees who believe
they are too good to sweep the floors or do the menial work?
Most jobs demand the right attitude to work and that can
be the most useful skill of all.
The Leitch Review of Skills, Prosperity for all in
the global economy – world class skills, is available
format from www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/leitch