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Donkin on Work - Training & Development

December 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 training initiatives.

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 for life.

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 fodder.

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 but these are too rarely recognised by teachers in classroom studies.

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 people.

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 web.

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 levels.

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 in pdf format from

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved