Blowing the learning trumpet

Learning initiative need to be big, bold and above all, well known, says
Stephen Overell

So, National Training Organisations (NTOs) have been scrapped because only 8
per cent of employers had heard of them. "They were too small and didn’t
have enough influence,"1 John Healey, the adult skills minister, told
Personnel Today.

At the risk of boring 100 per cent of readers, let’s take a little trip down
amnesia avenue. Launched in May 1998, NTOs were aimed at rationalising a crazy
mosaic of Industry Training Organisations, Lead Bodies and Occupations
Standards Councils.

Overhaul

Bringing them all together, NTOs were supposed to be streamlined,
employer-led bodies aimed at developing skills to meet predicted business
needs. In January 2001, Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister, handed
them £45m, announced an overhaul, and said they had "a crucial role to
play in developing skills"2.

A year later, doom beckoned in a fog of anonymity; they were only 29 months
old. In their place, yet more tinkering: five new Sector Skills Councils come
into being in March.

Few will mourn. Healey is right: NTOs were small, confusing and lacked
influence; to engage employers and learners, they need to be powerful,
well-understood and credible – it’s a government job to make them so. But,
here, he has also inadvertently put his finger on the basic problem with the
Government’s whole lifelong learning strategy: obscurity. NTOs were about as
well-known and influential as the rest of Labour’s skills architecture.

Testing times

How many more people have heard of Lifelong Learning Partnerships, Learning
and Skills Councils, Learndirect, or for that matter, the University for
Industry, Hubs, Pods, UK Online, National Learning Targets, Learning Gateways,
Foundation Modern Apprenticeships, Foundation degrees, and so on? On the
brand-new New Labour Training and Skills Public Profile Test, there would be a
case for scrapping them all.

Meanwhile, some government learning schemes are famous for entirely the
wrong reasons. Individual Learning Accounts, the £260m flagship programme which
offered grants and vouchers for training, collapsed, finally, on 16 January
amid allegations of fraud. So sad in one so young: ILAs were only launched
nationally in September 2000.

The sole exception in this tale of obscurity is good old Investors in
People, which is an undeniable success story and rightly famous, but has the
wrong kind of parentage, ie Tory. It was conceived in 1990.

An educating vision

Many people will remember Tony Blair’s crowd-pleasing trinity:
"education, education, education". Those who take an obsessive
interest in these things may also recall the Green Paper, The Learning Age3,
which mused freely on creating a "learning society", and the White
Paper, Learning to Succeed4, which spoke of ending the bureaucratic nightmare
of post-16 vocational provision. Professor Anthony Giddens, the prophet of
Blair’s Third Way, wrote: "Lifelong learning is the distinctive feature of
centre-left education policy."5

What has happened to this vision? Well, there is no doubt the Department for
Education and Skills has been very busy. Allegedly, in the summer of 2000, it
had 1,400 initiatives going on6.

But the words compared against the delivery are beginning to sound a little
feeble. In a recent letter to the Financial Times, Healey vowed his government
"will give vocational qualifications the same status as academic subjects
for the first time".7

Alison Wolf, professor of Education at the University of London, thought she
had heard it before. "He is apparently unaware that all of his
predecessors, over a 20-year period have expressed the same intention in almost
exactly the same words," she said.

"Young people not taking A-level courses have been subject to a
constant bombardment of short-lived schemes and qualifications, each of which
is airbrushed from the record on the arrival of its successor." NTOs, RIP.

The Government has been so mouse-like about what it has done in adult
skills, it’s hard not to fear tactical airbrushing may be awaiting such
under-exposed policy wheezes as the 6,000 UK Online centres, the 1,400
learndirect centres, the 110 Learning Partnerships – even the new Sector Skills
Councils. On second thoughts, maybe that’s why they are obscure.

Initiatives

Instead of one big initiative – think of Harold Wilson and the Open
University – the Government appears to be frittering away employer commitment
in a glut of limp, anaemic policies that it lacks the will to communicate
properly.

We’ll forget about the humiliation of ILAs for the moment; they were always
little more than a delightful subsidy for people pursuing previously existing
leisure interests. But what about that other so-called flagship learning
initiative, the Ufi-learndirect scheme? How many people have heard of that?

Five per cent, apparently. This is the fraction of the population that
recognise the brand without being prompted.8 True, Ufi has only been going
since 25 October 2000, adverts are being pumped out, and enrolments accrue.
Even so, in a major national initiative, it’s pathetic.

What about employers?

According to Ufi, 20,000 small employers are using or have used its learning
materials; nine large ones have set up learning centres; there are 10 sectoral
hubs in which employers are involved, while an unknown number are taking part
in the 76 hub partnerships which look after learning centres.

That sounds promising. But talk to the Federation of Small Businesses and
while the name registers, it’s a rather different story. "Ufi is totally
inappropriate," says a spokeswoman. "It’s hard to know what’s going
on."

Then again, it’s questionable if Ufi-learndirect really counts as a major
national initiative at all. The scheme is a public-private partnership with a
ridiculously complicated structure. The cost of getting it up and running
(£84m) is Whitehall pin money – far less than the investment that has gone into
the infinitely more obscure UK Online centres programme (£252m), which seeks to
tackle the basic skills crisis.

It’s beginning to look a bit of a mess. If the Government’s fine words on
adult skills are not to be meaningless, clarity, direction and above all
exposure are badly needed across its lifelong learning strategy. It’s a
communications job as much as anything.

Healey, the former spinmeister at the TUC, should be well cut out for making
the many parts of Labour’s learning strategy famous and understood. Who knows?
By January 2003, a massive 9 per cent of employers might have heard of Sector
Skills Councils.

References

1 Interview, Personnel Today, 29 January 2002

2 DfEE press release, 18 January, No 2001/0025

3 The Learning Age, Dfee, February 1998

4 Learning to Succeed, Dfee, June 1999

5 The Third Way, Anthony Giddens, Polity Press, 1998

6 Times Educational Supplement, 16 June, 2000

7 Financial Times, Letters, 1 December, 2001

8 Ufi Ltd, Strategy Document, 2002-05

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