Government raises vocational game

The Government is set to launch its long-awaited Skills Strategy. It is
unlikely to involve any new money, rather it will concentrate on drawing up the
priorities for the £2.5bn a year the Treasury has already earmarked for adult

The strategy is a joint initiative involving the Department for Education
and Skills (DfES), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Treasury.
It needs to boost UK productivity, which lags 30 to 40 per cent behind our
industrial competitors. This comes hard on the heels of other government
sponsored initiatives such as the Kingsmill and Porter projects.

"This is about creating a fair society and hard-edged economic success.
We need to raise our game on vocational skills, which are every bit as important
as academic qualifications," adult skills minister Ivan Lewis told
Training Magazine. "However, we need to be clear about where the
Government should be putting its resources and decide what are the respective
responsibilities of government business and individuals," he said.

Lewis is plugging the idea of partnership between all the players. ‘We need
a new partnership approach on skills between business, government and trade
unions. We should all be working more closely together," he said.

Boosting productivity

"We also need to break down the ‘Berlin walls’ between schools.
colleges and employers so we can find ways of attracting people into

The strategy is unlikely to escape controversy. One of the biggest debates
with employers is going to be around this whole issue of priorities and how
best to boost productivity. Should the Government concentrate its funds on the
very low skilled – those who don’t have what is now regarded as the minimum
employment qualification – five GSCEs or their vocational equivalent? Or should
it put its money into raising the UK’s intermediary skills – through more Level
3 qualifications?

The Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) is clear where it wants public
money to go. In its response to the Government’s progress report in May, it
said support for people with basic skills deficiencies should not compromise
the competitiveness of the country as a whole.

It is not suggesting the Government consign the untrained and unqualified to
the scrap heap, said Claire Donovan, the EEF’s education and skills policy
adviser. "Employers are looking for people who are willing to learn and
capable of learning. We want government support to go to these people,"
she explained.

Critics of the whole process of the Skills Strategy say the Government
should have devised its strategy before overhauling the institutional framework
and introducing Local Skills Councils (LSCs), Regional Development Agencies
(RDAs) and Sector Skills Councils (SSCs).

The Government argues that the purpose of the strategy is to make sense of
the new infrastructure and get agencies working together. Pilot programmes to
merge RDA and LSC budgets in four regions are one example. The Skills Strategy
will further enhance the idea with what the government terms a ‘no wrong door
approach’. Employers and individuals will be able to access funding or advice
via any agency involved in jobs, skills and economic development.

It is a popular idea with employers, but they are concerned that the
Government will be unable to deliver. ‘There needs to be more coherent working
between the various agencies than currently,’ said Donovan. "The problem
with starting everything as a national initiative is that it can depend on the
personalities involved bringing people together."

Value from training cash

Whether or not the Government has put the cart before the horse, clearly
delivering the Skills Strategy will be make or break time for the LSC network.
As well as being the budget holder for adult skills, the national LSC is likely
to be given responsibility for a revamped Individual Learning Account
initiative to replace the discredited scheme the Government closed down.

Michael Stark, head of skills and workforce development at the LSC knows he
and his colleagues will have to show that they can get more value out of
government training spend than their predecessors. However, he said it was also
a great opportunity for the LSC, as a quango funded by a single department, to
leverage more funds out of other areas of government.

"The-cross departmental nature of the strategy means there is a chance
for other spending departments to contribute to skills spend," he said.

Stark remains upbeat about the forthcoming White Paper. "I would expect
to see quite large shifts in training provision after a few years. Over time I
think the strategy will be seen to have been very radical," he said.

By Lucy Carrington

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