The underlying premise of the skills workshop’s discussion was two-fold. Firstly, delivering the right mix of skills to empower Northern Ireland was inextricably linked with clear economic and social objectives. Secondly, a holistic approach towards achieving these outcomes should inform policy, programmes and priorities.
Too often in Northern Ireland, different stakeholder groups have tended to work in silos with each one competing for finite resources to advance their own objectives. The absence of a proper system means that the province’s providers fail to deliver the right skills and learning outcomes.
The Swiss and Austrian vocational models, by comparison, are good examples of highly functioning systemic approaches, particularly for promoting work-based learning. Leaders in skills bodies in Northern Ireland need to move outside of their traditional positions and together develop a single narrative about skills.
Delegates agreed that while information skills matters, proper customer insight matters even more. Customers should be asked for their views on labour market information, the relevance of careers guidance in schools and sectoral trends for investors.
Successful countries and regions ensure that such information is genuinely insightful, generated in a timely manner and easily accessible by the stakeholders; these include employers, students, training providers and others with an interest in skills.
A plethora of information exists in Northern Ireland but is in not joined up, integrated or easily accessible. Delegates wanted to see a single point of contact for this information established, as happens in Scotland.
It was widely accepted that the concept of a T-shaped individual is very pertinent for Northern Ireland i.e. developing a person with broad generic and inter-personal skills as well as deep vocational skills. The approach has traditionally focused on either the horizontal (inter-personal) or vertical (vocational) direction but rarely on the integration of the two.
Aston University Engineering Academy, which opened in Birmingham last September, is a good example of a strong vocational curriculum located very firmly in a systemic approach.
It clearly thinks outside the box: a post-primary school founded by a university which trains young people to meet the business needs of private sector partners (National Grid, PTC, e.on and Goodrich). More information on the Aston model can be found on its website: www.auea.co.uk