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David Puttnam

Lord Puttnam made an intervention in the Second Reading Debate on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

Lord Puttnam makes intervention in Skills and Post-16 Education Bill Debate

16 June, 2021

Source: Hansard 

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward a Bill to address an area which, for more years than I care to remember, has resisted every attempt to implement a coherent long-term employment policy. I am no fan of Dominic Cummings but, during his recent evidence to the Select Committee, he was precisely on the money in pointing out the lamentable record of successive British Governments to learn lessons from countries such as Norway, Finland and New Zealand —the noble Lord, Lord Storey, added Germany and Switzerland—which have successfully created well-thought-through skills and apprenticeship programmes. These policies have allowed many of them to race past us in offering appropriate pathways and opportunities for skilling and reskilling those for whom higher education was either unavailable or simply not all that attractive.

I have never been able to establish whether this is as a result of arrogance or ignorance but, either way, many sectors of our economy have been allowed to atrophy as a result of inattention and neglect. This has not been for lack of announcements, speeches or data; it is more to do with an inexplicable failure to follow through, fund and deliver. This Bill, if enacted with imagination and commitment, could prove a watershed. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they can be credited for at least giving themselves the legislative opportunity to prove it.

The Bill has the potential to become a vehicle for broadening and deepening apprenticeship schemes, for example by taking account of the mobility of freelance employment, but that should be the beginning of its ambition, not the end of it. While I broadly agree with the employer-led concept, a potential Catch-22 situation needs to be considered, whereby established incumbents find themselves favoured over those wishing to take advantage of new business opportunities, most especially in areas with diminishing growth prospects. I am sure the extension of things such as maintenance provision, as a counterbalance to embedded regional inequalities, is something the Minister will want to touch on in her response.

While well-intentioned, I am concerned that this Bill and the White Paper on which it is based are nowhere near imaginative enough in their interpretation of what future employment patterns might look like. Regrettably, when it comes to implementation, we invariably seem to find ourselves working from a 10 year-old playbook. I cannot have been the only person dumbfounded that “creativity”, having featured in the Secretary of State’s introduction, failed to reappear in either the Bill or the Skills for Jobs White Paper that preceded it. When she responds, could the Minister please explain this omission or possibly tell me that I need my glasses tested?

Creativity is an entirely sustainable asset—one the UK has proved to have in abundance. In my judgment, it will prove the great differentiator among ambitious, competitive nations in the digital world. Surely it needs to be incorporated into every aspect of the way that we think about skills and training for the future. For example, far too little thought has been given to how we cultivate greater agility in the workforce by encouraging transferrable skills across sectors. The White Paper described the need to develop “higher-level technical skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths”.

Of course, STEM and digital skills should be at the forefront of how we plan for the future, but they have to walk hand in hand with creativity if we are serious about developing a truly successful economy.

A good example of this thinking comes from Demis Hassabis, the founder of the AI company DeepMind. He put it this way:

“Some of the most interesting areas of science are in the gaps between … subjects… What I’ve tried to do in building DeepMind is to find ‘glue people’, those who are world class in multiple domains, who possess the creativity to find analogies and points of contact between different subjects. Generally speaking, when that happens, the magic happens.”

The successful growth of companies such as DeepMind should serve as a warning regarding the dangers of a purely employer-led focus, because history suggests that incumbents are a lot less likely to spot where the next big opportunity will come from.

I find it unsurprising to learn that, in 2018, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that education in these subjects should include the humanities, arts, crafts and design. That recommendation has now been rolled out right across North American universities. For example, 100% of undergraduates at MIT, one of the world’s leading technical institutes, study the arts, humanities and social sciences. In fact, those subjects now account for 25% of their overall class time.

Collaboration between a variety of talents and skills has to be the right way, possibly the only way, to ensure the success of a balanced competitive workforce—the kind of workforce that the Bill seeks to create. There will also be an overwhelming need for departmental collaboration. Can the Minister assure the House that the transition of support from the DWP into this new skills framework will be made as uncomplicated as possible? It will need to be if the Government’s levelling-up ambitions are to be fully realised.

Finally, on this vital issue of collaboration, the idea that improved provision for further education can be resourced only at the expense of higher education is to totally misunderstand the challenges of the global economy. Far from being in competition for resources, these two sectors should be encouraged to move in lock-step, as never before. This point was powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and I completely support what he said. In my view, ensuring a successful partnership between further and higher education represents exactly the type of approach that is needed to make this legislation a success. I do not see this as a political Bill so, given a thoughtful Committee stage and a listening Government, we have the opportunity to send a valuable and uncontentious piece of legislation for ratification in another place.