Tom Richmond: Theresa May’s answer over Brexit should be ‘skills, skills, skills’

Theresa May.
Theresa May.
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PRIME Ministers have tried to govern by soundbite since Tony Blair declared “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.”

Since then, Gordon Brown promised – erroneously – to end “boom and bust” economics before David Cameron mimicked Blair and said his mission could be summed up by three letters: NHS. If only.

Yet, as Theresa May struggles to make sense of her “Brexit means Brexit” promise crafted in the wake of Cameron’s resignation, it struck me that one critical and overlooked word underpins these platitudes – skills.

Unless Britain attempts to become “the skills superpower of the world”, Blair’s neglected promise in that education speech, the economy – and key public services – will flounder as the country leaves the EU.

However, while the current PM uses the “skills” word in the context of cyber crime, and her campaign for global action to halt the bullying that takes place on social media, the Tory leader is more reticent at other times.

She shouldn’t be. If she wants to regain the political initiative – and save the country from her party’s internecine warfare over Europe – she should be appraising every policy from a skills perspective and whether Great Britain plc has the necessary expertise.

As Justine Greening, the recently sacked Education Secretary, told The Yorkshire Post, the skills and social mobility agenda is fundamental to Brexit and the Industrial Strategy now being drawn up.

Yet May should be going further. She should be challenging every Whitehall ministry to be a skills department. Not only do they need to be assessing Brexit’s impact rather than leaking incriminating documents, but they need to be assessing the country’s requirements – and then working with business – to come up with a robust strategy for the future.

It’s no good waiting until next March when Britain is due to leave the EU – if the May government survives until then. It needs to be happening now, even more so given the country’s economic dependence in recent times on the work ethic, and expertise, of migrants.

And there needs to be far more purpose, ambition and endeavour than demonstrated by Skills Minister Anne Milton when she led the Government’s response to the Parliamentary debate staged by York Outer MP Julian Sturdy.

As The Yorkshire Post’s editorial noted last week, his proposal for a GCSE in Agriculture was particularly meritorious given the fundamental importance of food production to everyday life and the need for more young people to be attracted into farming.

Given that such a qualification exists in Northern Ireland where agriculture remains the main industry, and farming’s wider economic importance to rural Yorkshire, this was an opportunity for the Government to pass its own skills test so a select number of specialist secondary schools can offer this subject.

After all, the Yorkshire Dales is fighting for its future – an ageing population is changing the demographics of the National Park – and young people have never been more environmentally aware as, for example, the harmful effects of plastics become clear.

Why can’t a suitable syllabus be developed when this county alone can draw upon the expertise of august bodies like the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, National Farmers Union, Bishop Burton College, CLA North and Welcome to Yorkshire, which has galvanised this county’s hospitality industry?

No, the aforementioned minister simply didn’t want to know. She said pupils could learn about “changing weather, climate change, global eco-systems, biodiversity and resources” in geography lessons; understand the “economic, environmental and socio-cultural influences on food availability” in nutrition GCSE or pick up content “in some of the science GCSEs”.

I’m glad she wasn’t my teacher. I would have been bored to tears. Though she’s right when she stresses the importance of all children focusing on their literacy, numeracy and digital skills, it does depend on the quality and enthusiasm of the teacher – and the syllabus that is being taught. My A-Level geography in the distant past was very orientated towards town planning.

Yet, while the minister pointed to the role of apprenticeships, she created the impression that she had little empathy for, or understanding of, the rural economy, or the reasons behind the debate being called in the first place. She was just going through motions and clearly couldn’t wait for her half-hour ordeal to end.

Talk about complacent. Farming families, and others living and working in areas like the Dales, have every right to feel disappointed. Likewise Environment Secretary Michael Gove – the former Education Secretary knows more than most about this issue’s importance. And Theresa May must be wondering why she put so much trust in a Skills Minister with so little get up and go.

Given this, and the fact that imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery, now is the time for May to reassert herself by making “skills, skills, skills” a defining policy and making sure every minister, and MP, supports her in this change of emphasis so every city, town, village and parish can have the best chance of flourishing in the post-EU landscape.

This is about the country’s future. And, if the Prime Minister gets this right and puts skills centre-stage, there might be slightly less trepidation on the day of reckoning when Brexit does mean Brexit.