O’Connor is director of development at media skills organisation Skillset and a
also rising star in the vocational skills firmament. Simon Kent tunes in to her
new agenda under the forthcoming Sector Skills Development Agency
To say that the new year will be busy for Kate O’Connor is something of an
As this edition of Training Magazine was going to press, she received the
news that Skillset, the National Training Organisation for broadcast, film,
video and interactive media, for which she works as director of development,
has been granted a two-year licence to operate as a Sector Skills Council
The arrangement, which kicks off this month, will entail offering advice and
guidance to other potential SSCs (drawn from 72 former NTOs which will find out
over the next few months if they will be reincarnated).
These trailblazers will, to borrow other government jargon, act as
"pathfinders", identifying the targets for improvement for skills and
productivity from connections with the Regional Development Agencies.
Skillset has long received important endorsement from the industry it
represents. Both unions and employers gave their backing when it first was put
forward for recognition as one of the six proposed "trailblazing"
SSCs. In effect, five have been announced (see News, page 4).
The NTO National Council, where O’Connor acts as chair of the Standards and
Qualifications Committee, will disband and a new Sector Skills Development
Agency will appear to manage the SSC network.
O’Connor herself has secured a further role in the future of vocational
training, having been made an adviser to the Employer Champions Group, created
by the DfES and NTO National Council in November to identify how both National
Occupational Standards and National Vocational Qualifications can be promoted
to raise skills levels and overcome shortages throughout industry.
Many changes are afoot, but the proposed remit of Skillset for its own
industry has been identified, thanks to the conclusions of an 18-month
programme of consultation and research into skill requirements throughout the
audio visual sector.
The final report, Skills for Tomorrow’s Media, was published in September
2001 and contains clear initiatives for the organisation as well as indicating
the role of employers, employees, Government and unions in providing effective
"Skillset has been successful because we’ve always taken a specific
focus on the needs of the industry," says O’Connor. "Those needs are
not unique to this industry, but many are, including challenges of dealing with
a freelance workforce and a predominantly SME employer base."
Since its creation as an Industry Led Body in 1991, Skillset has worked
towards providing a completely integrated skills and training service for the
sector. It has monitored industry needs, raising and managing finance from
within the sector and from external sources to meet those needs.
At the same time, it has represented the sector back to government, seeking
to influence policy and priorities in this area.
The challenges met by Skillset may not be unique to the industry, but in
many ways the media’s experience has been a concentrated version of trends
experienced throughout industry in general.
The early 1990s saw radical changes in the media industry. At a time of
recession, new technology was changing the way many employees worked.
Restructuring occurred throughout the sector as ITV companies bid for their
licences and the BBC’s charter was assessed and renewed.
One result was that, almost overnight, employees had to switch from
long-term job security to short term freelance work.
The creation of Channel 4, the emergence of new media and the greater
emphasis on commissioning programmes meant new training solutions needed to be
found to address entrants and freelance workers in a growing independent
"Skillset emerged from the need and recognition that training had to be
organised in a suitable way for the industry," says O’Connor.
"The industry had to work together, forgetting the distinctions of video,
TV, radio and corporate work to identify common standards for the training of
"We created a set of standards and competence levels within the
industry which could be used across training from apprenticeships to continual
professional development programmes.
"Delivery has always been through the industry using professional
training providers," O’Connor continues. "Where Government programmes
fit we have used them to their best effect, but we don’t try to bring
Government initiatives into the industry for the sake of it.
"We have also represented the industry’s views to Government to say
this is the kind of support we need with initiatives such as modern
apprenticeships, given our workforce are predominantly graduate, freelance,
specialists and aged over 21."
One reason for O’Connor’s optimism is the enhanced profile she believes will
be afforded to the SSCs, increasing employer’s influence at Government level.
"Individual NTOs have made a difference, but we’ve always had to push
for that status," she says.
"I hope one of the differences will be that the SSCs are seen as the
voice of their sector. John Healey [Adult Skills Minister] has supported that
and described the SSCs as the missing dimension which will fit alongside the
Regional Development Agencies and the local Learning Skills Councils. What has
been missing is a strong network of sector representation."
O’Connor is also pleased by the emphasis placed on expected productivity
increase achieved through the restructure.
"Education and training is about improving productivity," she
says. "The provision of further and higher education cannot be exempt from
that objective. Making sure that connection is clear will get buy-in to the new
structure from employers."
It is interesting to note that the current research aims of the Employer
Champions Group is to examine how National Occupational Standards and NVQs
should be developed and "used as a tool to raise skills levels and enhance
The group will advise ministers, the Learning and Skills Council, the QCA
and the RDAs on this subject by April 2002.
Certainly O’Connor perceives a generally positive feeling among employers
that the SSCs will increase their influence in the training arena.
Critics have argued that in some cases training has been led by education,
irrespective of industry needs. The media has had its own problems with the
education sector. "In the mid-90s there was an explosion of further and
higher education courses in the media and the industry was very critical of
many of those courses," says O’Connor.
"Employers found themselves bombarded by requests for work experience,
but at the same time, when students had completed their courses, they had
little or no idea of what the industry was about."
Through working with employers and reflecting their needs to the education
sector, Skillset has reduced the antagonism that developed over this period.
Formal education now offers more relevant degrees and employers expect to recruit
In line with Government policy, Skillset is supporting the drive towards
recognising centres of vocational excellence in further education to deliver
specific skills to the industry. At the same time, a framework for course accreditation
by the industry is being developed. Higher education courses meeting certain
standards will gain a "kite mark" of good quality.
"Courses will be measured to straight-forward criteria," explains
O’Connor. "These will include whether they meet national standards, if
they taught by people with professional experience, if they use professional
equipment and so on.
"We hope the establishment of the SSC network will help in this area by
giving the industry more power and influence on policy within the higher and
further education sectors."
Naturally, there is a reverse side to hopes held for the new councils.
"Employers are positive about the SSCs because of their general
positioning, their increased influence and the increased government funding
they will receive," says O’Connor.
"However, they are also nervous that there simply won’t be enough
government funding for the new organisations to be effective."
In addition, the restructuring is destined to result in a reduction of
training representative bodies.
A figure of 25 SSCs is rumoured – compared with over 70 currently operating
NTOs – but whatever the final figure, some industry sectors will have to merge.
O’Connor resists the idea of a merger. "Our sector is very clear it
wants to retain its current remit and size," she says. "The sector
cannot get any bigger, otherwise the impact of our work will be diluted."
She notes that any such merger could delay the implementation of Skillset’s
current agenda. The sector report Skills for Tomorrow’s Media carries over 70
recommendations for moving training practice forward and O’Connor is clearly
eager to get on with the work.
"There’s a lot to be getting on with in the sector and any kind of
delay will be frustrating," she says.
One role which will disappear from O’Connor’s portfolio next year is that of
chair of Standards and Qualifications Committee for the NTO National Council.
The committee comprises representatives from 16 diverse NTOs and has advised
on policy issues including the development and funding of National Occupational
Standards to organisations such as the QCA and the DfES.
The committee may disappear along with the NTO structure but O’Connor will
continue to act as an ambassador for National Occupational Standards whenever
"We have delegations from all over the world talking to us to find out
how we set up these standards in the TV and audio sector," she says.
"In some cases, other countries have taken our standards and ideas and
used them to greater effect. I think that has been partly due to this notion
that the standards are linked with NVQs and in some areas NVQs have never been
"There are difficulties of implementing those qualifications and
assessing on the job. It’s a major investment for employers to take on, and can
be difficult in a freelance environment."
"I’ve always felt passionately about the value of occupational
standards and qualifications because we are world leaders in this area,"
"In the late 1980s, we set out to develop standards and a vocational
qualification framework which would operate from mail room to board room and
would involve all industries.
"It’s been very exciting and very frustrating because 15 years later
the National Occupational Standards have improved immeasurably but they have
hardly been used outside the world of NVQs."
While next year’s restructuring provides the ideal opportunity for
relaunching the Standards and NVQs as separate and effective training tools,
O’Connor believes ultimate success in meeting the skills challenge lies in a
three-way relationship between the Government, the employers and employees.
"Government has a role in funding education and training, setting
policy, developing and implementing initiatives such as the standards
framework," she says.
"There then needs to be a genuine partnership between the industry
sector and individual employers in terms of funding, implementing, informing
and influencing that policy.
"The third part of the triangle is the individual. They must have a
clear commitment to learning. The individual has a role to play in finding the
training they need and investing in their own skills. It’s a three-way
Kate O’Connor – the story so far
1995 Director of development as
Skillset becomes an NTO
1993 Skillset – O’Connor worked with director on developing and
implementing industry training strategy as Skillset was launched as an Industry
1991 Skillset – Founding member. Project director for industry
led body, responsible for development of National Occupational Standards, NVQs
1984 City & Guilds of London Institute – Various roles
culminating in test development manager, managing a team of assessment experts
working for employers, training providers and first industry-led bodies
1982 Manpower Service Commission (Department of Employment),
Large Companies Unit – Management of YTS schemes