Skills Councils were funded by the Labour Government, and licenced in the four UK nations by the then UK Commission for Education and Skills (UKCES) in 2004. Some emerged from predecessor organisations such as Construction Skills from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) already funded by employer levies and donations. Lord Tony Hall and Tom Bewick as founding chair and first CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills pitched successfully for the creation of a new skills body for the arts and culture. Funding was generous at £1million a year, but – as often with Government money – there was always a requirement for match funding from employers, i.e. arts organisations, or their proxies, Arts Councils.
In those early days UKCES set clear tasks across the 25 newly licenced councils who all worked to a single process to feed into the national picture of skills needed to power economic policy. Although some sectors were adept with the process, for Creative & Cultural Skills it was all new: providing the first labour market intelligence (LMI) to the sector, giving clear advice to Government on the sector’s qualifications needs, bearing in mind that DfE funding is always linked to the qualifications, not courses, and initiating ‘sector-specific solutions’ to ensure young people could be properly skilled and trained to make economic impact. And perhaps most of all ensuring that young people from all backgrounds could join their relevant sectors: non-graduates, working class young people and those not in education, employment or training – so-called NEETs.
In The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future, Sally Bacon and I chart the decline in arts education in schools over 40 years, but we could equally have looked into post-16 education where the arts and cultural sectors have had even less influence. Organisations like UKCES saw Level 2 and 3 qualifications as the most significant in lifting young people out of potential future unemployment and able to make a contribution to their local economies.
Insofar as the cultural sector engages with Further Education it is mainly through Diplomas and Extended Diplomas at Levels 2 and 3 (equivalent to GCSE and A Levels), together with the Foundation Diploma in Art & Design, which provide essential entry-points to art schools and Higher Education, and offer opportunities to explore ideas and media. These courses are supported today by UAL Awarding Body, part of the University of the Arts London, and their excellent diplomas which reflect arts sector and creative industries practice, and BTECs. Few know how fragile funding for these courses has always been. The Department for Education (DfE), preferring end-point assessment and examinations to portfolios, projects and exhibitions, returns year-on-year to look for ways to de-fund them. At the moment the DfE is defunding very popular BTECs in health and social care and engineering (with more than 40,000 students a year) in order to force colleges to switch to the as yet untested T Levels, for which, according to the Financial Times (10/11/23) there were just 3,448 entries across all subjects in 2022. Creative sector T Levels have yet to start, but with a requirement of 45-day work placements their future is already doomed given the sector’s track record on offering work experience to scale. That the Prime Minister has already proposed combining T Levels and A Levels into a new Advanced British Standard (ABS) suggests that T Levels will not be with us for long.
In its nearly 20-year life Creative & Cultural Skills did make a difference and held its place alongside skills councils such as those for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, and information technology. It even developed its own National Skills Academy (NSA), working closely with FE colleges across the four nations. It built a training centre funded by the Skills Funding Agency and Regeneration funds at High House Production Park in Purfleet which operates today working to an industry board as part of South Essex College. Other NSAs were developed for food and drink, and transport. Most of all Creative & Cultural Skills worked with arts and cultural organisations to offer apprenticeships as a genuine way of encouraging practical ways for entry-level recruits who either couldn’t contemplate a student loan or who preferred on-the-job, not academic learning. With funding from Arts Council England for the Creative Employment Programme (CEP), which ran from 2013 to 2017, it created more than 4,000 paid apprenticeships and paid internships, whilst also providing hundreds of young people with pre-employment training. The demographics supported through this programme were atypical of those the sector ordinarily embraced, and many of those young people are still working in the sector today. Creative & Cultural Skills also provided best practice guidance to employers to support the taking on of new apprentices and paid interns.
Some programmes will survive: Masterclass TRH continues the annual Theatrecraft event at the Royal Opera House, and careers initiatives come and go as funding allows. Some of the bigger cultural organisations like the London Transport Museum and the Royal Opera House have their own long-established apprenticeship and work experience programmes.
It has to be said though that Skills policy people are mystified by our sector. Why do we say we want to attract people from working class backgrounds when we don’t advertise with Job Centre Plus? Why do we employ graduates in jobs that do not need degrees blocking local young talent? How can we be interested in careers when we don’t engage with the mainstream careers events like the annual Skills Show or World Skills? And in schools do cultural organisations contribute to delivery of careers strategies – arguably the only part of mainstream education where the DfE genuinely wants outsiders and employers to work with schools?1
There seems to be no appetite for these agendas in the cultural sector, either by employers or funding bodies. Skills councils were designed to be employer-funded at first, and matched pound for pound by UKCES. In 2010 they were the first victims of austerity and forced into a dependency on employer levies or donations. For Creative & Cultural Skills that meant they needed arts organisations or arts councils to step in – but few of them even talked the language of employers.
Arts and cultural organisations like to be innovative and to do things their own way but staying away from the education and skills mainstream is an expensive luxury for which the sector will have to raise its own money, and which will never go to scale or be recognised by government.
Pauline Tambling was CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills until she retired in 2018.