This article first appeared in TES on 8 April 2016
As a relative newcomer to working in London, I’m wide-eyed with admiration for the daily miracle that is Transport for London. Waving my Oyster card like a magic wand, I can do short or long-hop journeys, skip from underground to overground, jump from train to bus, assisted by clear signs, maps and apps. It’s not perfect by any means, but it works remarkably well considering the size and complexity of the capital.
If only London had something similar for skills. The Greater London Authority’s draft Skills Vision for London is rightly ambitious, aspiring to “a world-class skills system that…prepares Londoners for life and work in a global city”. To achieve this, we surely need a step-change in coordination and integration. We need an Oyster strategy.
Currently we have a jungle, not a system. Schools, FE colleges, universities, private trainers and employers operate separately, with little coordination. While London has many world-class schools, colleges and universities, their combined impact is constantly undermined by the scattergun of individual agendas.
Devolution brings a historic opportunity – if it can be grasped – for something much better: a skills for London system with strong neighbourhood institutions offering basic employability skills – up to GCSE level – to youngsters and adults. A system that coordinates efforts at advanced and higher levels around key specialist skills needed for growth – digital, construction, finance, creative industries, life sciences. A system that forges a strong technical and professional education pathway – built around apprenticeships and related courses – as a high quality alternative to the traditional A-level and university route to success.
London has unique features that make this possible. It is compact, with millions of people inside the M25. It’s easy to imagine a small network of – for example – specialist engineering skills centres serving the whole of London, rather like we have specialist hospitals for heart surgery. The labour market contains a high proportion of graduate-level jobs, reflecting the role of the City and the number of large corporate HQs in and around it. So it’s well placed to support progression pathways in key occupational sectors leading from entry up to postgraduate level.
London is a regional, national and global hub. A successful skills system would have a wider impact, for example in leveraging expertise and capacity along the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor.
To achieve this vision, I believe that London should borrow unashamedly from the best features of TfL; the ability to move easily from one mode of transport to another. For skills, it should be a system where students can move to and from schools, sixth forms, FE colleges, apprenticeships and universities at different stages in their journey. We should have clear maps and route planning. This means a comprehensive and well-signposted independent careers advice service across the city.
Like the Oyster card payment system, there should be a simple, unified, customer-friendly system for adults and employers to use loans or grants to pay for training.
There must be continuous upgrades and improvements: a London-wide investment strategy for developing the network of skills provision.
The new London mayor will have a full in-tray. But when contemplating skills, at least there’s a tried and trusted approach to hand. If schools, colleges and universities are the pearls of skills wisdom, then surely they need an Oyster to help them sparkle even more.