Direct line to skills

The
true impact of the Government’s latest skills strategy will come to light as
the UK returns to work in earnest after the summer break. Margaret Kubicek
unravels the implications for employers

The
Government’s drive towards a truly demand-led system of adult skills training
continues, with stakeholders digesting the latest policy to emanate from
Whitehall – the Skills Strategy White Paper, 21st Century skills: Realising Our
Potential.

It
comes more than two years after the Government introduced the learning and
skills councils (LSC) network in April 2001, to involve local employers more
closely in the planning and funding of post-16 education, and just over a year
since national training organisations (NTOs) gave way to a larger, more
influential network of sector skills councils (SSCs).

Just
when we were getting used to who’s who in the new set-up, yet another new
policy document is published, testing our resolve to understand the dizzying
array of government agencies and quangoes, alliances and partnerships. But
there’s good news for those employers befuddled by this apparent system of
continuous change and ever more acronyms. Beyond the jargon and endless
references to multiple partnerships, the strategy reveals a groundbreaking
attempt to establish the most direct line yet between employers and government
with regard to skills as well as a true commitment by government to listen to
employers’ concerns.

Key
reforms

Total
government spending on skills for 2003-04 amounts to more than £8.5bn according
to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). While the White Paper
announces key reforms of existing qualifications, those reforms are by no means
revolutionary; and everything in the strategy is to be paid for out of existing
budgets. Thus the age cap for Modern Apprenticeships has not yet been removed,
merely raised, so that people starting any time up to their 25th birthday may
complete it.

Noting
a limited budget for Modern Apprenticeships, the White Paper offers no
specifics with regard to the expansion or design of the courses for adults –
nor for its pledge to increase support for skills at technician and higher
craft level (level 3) in "areas of regional or sectoral skills
priority".

Claire
Donovan, education and skills adviser at the Engineering Employers’ Federation
(EEF), is concerned that engineering could lose out. She hoped the age cap
would be removed and that "anyone undertaking a Modern Apprenticeship will
be funded to the highest level".

There
are currently some 6,500 advanced Modern Apprenticeships starting in England,
but the industry needs 10,000, says Donovan, and funding is critical because
engineering is so expensive to teach.

Where
the strategy is most specific on funding is with regard to basic skills,
announcing the entitlement to free learning to allow any adult without five
GCSEs or the equivalent to achieve a level 2 qualification. Means-tested grants
of up to £30 a week will also be introduced for adults studying full-time for a
first level 2 qualification, and for young adults studying full-time for a
first level 3 qualification.

Another
boost for basic skills will come with the roll-out of employer training pilots,
launched in September 2002. A joint initiative between the LSC, DfES and the
Treasury, the pilots see employers reimbursed the wage costs of releasing staff
for up to 10 days’ training each year leading to level 2 qualifications.

The
CBI has welcomed the emphasis on basic skills, and its senior policy adviser
Maniza Ntekim says: "The one thing we hear time and again from our members
is that if the Government could guarantee that 95 per cent of young people
would come out of school numerate, literate and with a positive attitude, then
we could do the rest."

Concerns

While
the basic skills initiatives have been met with enthusiasm, there are concerns
that it has been at the expense of investing in intermediate and management
skills. The Association of Colleges, for example, warns against pushing away
the ladder of progression at too early a stage, and the Chartered Management
Institute emphasises that managers’ skills are essential to the skills mix.

"If
you look at middle managers, particularly owner-managers of small and
medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), they often don’t have any management
discipline behind them," says the institute’s head of policy Petra Cook.
"The skills strategy is focused on young people up to the age of 30, yet
it is really post-30 that people start to look at management capabilities."

Cook
welcomes the strategy’s dedicated section on management leadership and its
endorsement of the institute’s launch of a ‘chartered manager’ status for
managers meeting certain criteria. There is also a government pledge of
financial support to help SMEs apply a new Investors In People leadership and
management model. While this all amounts to recognition of the need to upskill
management, Cook regrets having to "dig deep" in the White Paper to
find it.

Strengths

But
there is one aspect of the skills strategy upon which everyone is agreed and
enthusiastic: the spirit of partnership to make the system responsive to all
stakeholders at national, regional and local level (see below). For employers,
that means seeing qualifications reformed to be more flexible to their needs
and ensuring they have greater involvement in the design and delivery of Modern
Apprenticeships.

Leading
this ‘joined-up’ approach at national level will be a national skills alliance
chaired jointly by the education secretary Charles Clarke and trade and
industry secretary Patricia Hewitt – giving other stakeholders
cross-governmental contact for the first time. The CBI is among the key
partners and is pushing for the alliance to be "a strategic body with
teeth that can set targets", says Ntekim. "It can’t be just a talking
shop where the great and the good meet."

Also
playing a major role at national level will be the sector skills councils
(SSCs) and the strategic organisation overseeing them, the Sector Skills
Development Agency (SSDA).

The
strategy calls for rapid expansion of the SSC network, which took over from
NTOs in March 2002 and has already experienced slippage in the original
timetable for its development. With only eight fully licenced SSCs and 13 in
the pipeline, the Government’s new target for completion of the network is
nothing short of ambitious.

"We’ve
got to have the whole thing up and running by June 2004," says Mike
Campbell, SSDA’s director of policy and research. "By then we’ll cover
85-90 per cent of the workforce with about 23 SSCs."

Local
government is one sector feeling overlooked by the strategy. Despite submitting
two proposals to the SSDA, the development of an SSC is being held up by debate
over where local government workers fit in across the network. Local government
has been ‘in limbo’ for three years while the Government’s drive to modernise
public services grows ever stronger, says Joan Munro, director of development
at the Employers Organisation for Local Government.

"We’re
the biggest employer in the UK, but we haven’t been made to feel valued and
important," she says.

The
new timetable should give impetus to SSC development and those SSCs already on
stream show signs of having real national influence. For example, Skillsmart,
the retailers’ SSC, chaired by Debenhams’ chief executive Belinda Earl, has a
host of big name retailers on its board – including Kingfisher and Tesco –
alongside lesser-known companies.

Board
member Stephen Bell, vice-chairman of Bell Stores, says: "Because of the
strength of the people involved, I feel confident Skillsmart will get the
Government to listen."

Ronnie
Barker, managing director of footwear manufacturer E Sutton and Son and board
member of Skillfast-UK – the SSC for apparel, footwear and textiles – agrees.

"Up
to now we’ve been ploughing our own furrow when it comes to training,"
says Barker. "Now all the signs are there that with the SSCs, the
Government will realise piecemeal initiatives won’t work."

At
a regional and local level, SSCs will be articulating their skills needs via
the regional development agencies (RDAs), as Campbell explains: "LSCs did
some interesting sector pilots, for example in construction," he says.
"But it’s hard when you’re not the actual voice of employers. What we’ve
done is systematic, national and on a sectoral basis."

A
point echoed by a director at international learning and skills consultancy
Ecotec, Andrew McCoshan, who says: "On a practical level, it’s easier now
for sector skills councils to deal with the regions."

A
key achievement is to give a boost to existing partnership initiatives and
clarify how the various players inter-relate, says skills and development
policy adviser at the East of England Development Agency, Carole Edwards.

"It’s
not about what’s going to be new, it’s about how the strategy will support the
regional activity and how we harness what the Government is announcing to
benefit the economic development of each region," she says.

Confusion

But
for employers, the multi-layered partnerships aren’t necessarily
straightforward. Martin Lovell, a training manager for car giant BMW says:
"My view is one of great confusion and too many changes. We’ve got the
RDAs here, the LSCs there, plus the SSCs and SSDA. What are the
inter-relationships between them all?"

Lovell
has worked in a young people development role for some 11 years – previously at
British Aerospace and Unilever – and says a demand-led system has always been
the message from government. "It seems to be the packaging that changes on
a regular basis," he says.

Nevertheless,
he describes the goals of the skills strategy as "a fantastic idea"
with obvious benefits for employers. "I’m not saying they’re not putting
out any communication, but is it being understood?"

Stakeholders,
like the LSC, SSDA and RDAs, are up front about the challenge ahead. Caroline
Neville, the LSC’s director of policy and development, emphasises the strategy’s
aim of creating a ‘no wrong door approach’ to business support services – the
21st century’s answer to the one-stop shop – and the plan to publish a guide to
good training for employers. "A key strand running through the skills
strategy is that we need to be able to stimulate demand from employers,"
says Neville. "We need them to be able to access information, brokerage
and support to get into the system."

Gordon
Brown has hinted at more money going into skills, promising that
"improving skills will be central to our next spending review" (in
2004).

That
may be just the incentive employers need to find the nearest door to the skills
system and to walk right in. But stakeholders must ensure those ‘no wrong
doors’ don’t end up revolving out of control.

Bbeyond
acronyms

The
Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) oversees the network of Sector Skills
Councils (SSCs), successors to the now-defunct National Training Organisations
(NTOs). The SSDA and SSCs are collectively known as the Skills for Business
network. With a budget of some £45m, the network is well resourced and
positioned to take a strategic view and influence government policy on
productivity and performance.

The
White Paper announced a national Skills Alliance, jointly chaired by education
secretary Charles Clarke and trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt,
which brings together key partners in the skills and training system such as
the CBI, Small Business Council and delivery partners to drive forward the
skills strategy.

Regional/local
interface will be via the nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), which will
take the lead in forming regional skills partnerships with employers and local
Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs).

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