Room for improvement

On the eve of the Learning and Skills Council’s first anniversary, Philip
Boucher has sought the opinions of several leading commentators to determine
its performance to date, and the likelihood of it effectively improving the
UK’s skills performance

At its launch last April, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) was heralded
as the most radical shake up of post-16 training in a decade. Replacing both
the Training and Enterprise Council and the Further Education Funding Council,
it was given responsibility for the planning and funding of all 16 to 19-year
old, adult and community education outside university. Its aim: to improve the
UK’s skills performance.

As an institution, the LSC with 47 local organisations is the realisation of
a long-held goal to place vocational and academic learning on an equal footing.
And to help it on its way, the Government provided the council with an annual
budget of £6bn.

It is also the first government quango to promote participation in learning
through an umbrella of responsibility that involves working with schools,
colleges, employers and several government departments.

Since last April, the LSC has put its mind to organising the disparate
structures of the TEC and FEFC into one combined organisation. At the same time
it has filled the 47 local arms with qualified representatives from local
business and educational communities.

The initial stages of two grand schemes have also started to take shape:
funding the training and education of all 16 to19-year-olds – eventually this
will extend to 14 to 19 year-olds who will not go into further education and
addressing the national problem of poor adult literacy and numerical skills.

Later this month, a third scheme will begin with the introduction of a
provisional workforce development strategy. This intends to increase the UK’s
productivity per capita by encouraging more people with advanced technical
skills to enter management or leadership roles. There will also be increased
support for people to attain level 3 skills so that they can make the

This forms part of a wider government strategy outlined by the Cabinet
Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) in last November’s Workforce
Development Report. Produced on the personal request of Tony Blair, it intends
to "develop a national strategy for raising our game over the next

Underpinning the initiative is a government forecast that believes two
million new jobs will be created in the UK economy by 2010. Ministers want
these jobs to be filled. The catch is that there are not enough qualified
people to do so.

Bryan Sanderson
Chairman of Learning and Skills Council

"We haven’t achieved all our aims yet but it is still early days. The
first thing we had to do was to get the management structure right. We have
spent most of the last year putting a vehicle together that could give the
Government confidence that we can deliver on the agenda that we have been set.
This involved merging some 12-13 different cultures and systems, so it has not
been straightforward.

"In spite of a few teething problems, we achieved that with a system
that can move things forward. Importantly, we’ve also put together something
that’s relatively cheap: £89m and it should not rise too much higher.

"We have created 47 local LSCs and their strategies have been approved.
These are three-year plans that explain what they are going to do to achieve
these national objectives. The real decisions are going to be taken there. From
these we intend to go and build business plans and formulate action strategies.

"We have spent a great deal of time ensuring these are powerful local
bodies that are as socially inclusive as possible to reflect the different
strands of the local learning and business community.

"It is these that will be delivering the crucial operating decisions
with a local consensus behind it. And as they are locally driven, they know the
key local issues to do with adult learning. It has to be locally driven for it
to work.

"We are also required to have 40 per cent of LSC council members with
business experience and this has been achieved. It is about getting business
and society involved in education together – about matching skills need with
educational delivery – and about getting vocational education parity with more
traditional educational routes.

"And it’s also about the promotion of lifelong learning and getting
some of the seven million people in this country who have problems reading,
writing and calculating, back into learning. But while this vision is there, it
is far more difficult to put it into practice."

Damian Green
MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education

"One year on, it is time to ask what exactly the Learning Skills
Council (LSC) has achieved. For the people directly affected by the new body –
students, teachers, heads and parents – too much of what the LSC does is
shrouded in mystery. Talking to heads and teachers, they feel that there is
still too much uncertainty surrounding local learning and skills councils.
Initial teething problems are inevitable with any new organisation, but patchy
performance and the lack of a properly defined relationship with the central
body is hampering progress. These local inconsistencies not only impede
comparisons between the performance of local learning and skills councils, they
also make it very difficult to build up a broad picture of how the new system
is working.

"As many teacher representatives have said, the local learning and
skills councils could ride roughshod over local decision-making in relation to
sixth-form provision. Suspicions are certainly aroused that the Government is
tempted to look for a tertiary solution for all post-16 education. Despite
assurances from ministers, there is a considerable threat to school
sixth-forms, and heads of Further Education (FE) colleges are worried that the
LSC still considers them to be the poor cousin. They want assurances that FE
will be marketed properly, and they want to know that their local learning and
skills council will stand up for the services they provide. Both FE colleges
and school sixth-forms desperately need to know that outstanding funding issues
will be resolved, and their futures guaranteed, as soon as possible.

"There is also concern over the make-up of local learning and skills
councils. Recent information from the Department for Education and Skills has
shown that all too often there is no schools representative on the local body.
This does nothing to reassure schools with sixth-forms which are already
fearful of their future under the new funding arrangement. Nor is it clear that
representatives from the business sector are properly equipped to make
decisions about the skills that the economy will need, not in one year, but in
five or even 10. It is vital for students and the economy at large that local
learning and skills councils have these predictive skills.

"And we still do not know what the future holds. Bryan Sanderson has
suggested that the scope of the LSC will, in time, extend to 14-year-olds. The Government
has denied this is on the agenda, but such rumours only serve to exacerbate the
concerns of schools and FE colleges – a situation that makes everyone uneasy.

"What providers of post-16 education need is clarity, but so do the
local bodies themselves. The high calibre members that local learning and
skills councils have so far attracted will begin to drift unless they are given
a clear and unequivocal role. They also need responsibility, free from
political baggage and free from the ever-increasing powers of the Secretary of
State. The role of the LSC should be to ensure the continuation of a diverse
range of options in post 16-education. The Government needs to clean up the
current uncertainty and let them get on with it."

Margaret Murray
CBI head of learning and skills

"The Learning and Skills Council and the 47 local LSCs that have been
operating since April 2001 represent a radical shift in the post-16 education
and training framework. For the first time, all post-16 funding, excluding
higher education, is controlled by one body. Credit should go to LSC staff at
local and national level for their success with the difficult task of setting
up this new organisational structure.

"The reorganisation has not been without its problems. The change was
revolutionary rather than evolutionary and has resulted in widespread confusion
among employers about what the role of the new organisation is, how the skills
needs of business will be met and the role that the LSC envisages for
employers. But it is still early days. There is much goodwill among employers.
The CBI, in particular, recognises the important role the LSC has to play in
boosting national competitiveness by raising skills levels. For its part, the
CBI will continue to support members who sit on local LSCs and it will liaise
closely with the LSC.

"The LSC faces many challenges over the coming years but three in
particular stand out. In its corporate plan, the LSC lists a plethora of
objectives, aims and targets. While many of these are laudable, there are just
too many. The LSC’s first challenge must be to prioritise. Second, there is the
concern over business retention on LSCs. Employers need to see that they are
adding value by getting involved. Without such an assurance, their involvement on
LSCs cannot be guaranteed.

Finally, given the myriad of organisations and government departments
involved in developing skills policy, the LSC must show how it adds value to
the skills debate.

"The CBI would like the LSC to focus on three main priorities, two of
which the CBI and the TUC jointly identified. These are: improving the
employability of 14- to 25-year-olds by specifically ensuring that virtually
all achieve at least a C in English and Mathematics at GCSE level – raising the
level of adults’ literacy and numeracy skills; and increasing the penetration
of the Investors in People standard, especially in smaller organisations.

"The LSC is not alone in delivering on these priorities and indeed it
will not succeed without the involvement of others including the Government,
providers, individuals and employers. But the LSC could make a real difference
by allowing greater local flexibility, particularly in terms of funding,
allowing local LSCs to respond to local skills needs. In addition, the local LSCs
need to market themselves effectively and demonstrate their relevance to their
two key customers – employers and individuals."

Paul Holmes
Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield and a member of the Select
Committee for Education and Skills

"As the Learning and Skills Council celebrates its first birthday, the
jury is still out on how successful it has been. It became operational on 2
April 2001 to integrate the planning and funding of all post compulsory
learning in England other than higher education. A remit which has potentially
already been undermined by the Government’s new proposals for ages 14 to 19
education that would cut across the current transition in education at age 16.
This hiccup aside, it is of course too early yet to judge the likelihood of
LSC’s long-term success, but there are a number of, sometimes controversial,
areas to watch out for.

"The LSC is the largest quango in the UK – or non-departmental public
body as its chairman Bryan Sanderson prefers to call it. Whatever its name, it
is an unelected body which, through its 47 local councils, disposes of £7bn of
public money and has the potential to wield far-reaching power over the
functioning of Further Education colleges, sixth-form colleges, school-based
sixth-forms and other adult forms of education outside of the universities.

"Its future decisions on funding and long-term strategy could
potentially make or break local colleges and school-based sixth-forms. Yet, as
is so often the case in an increasingly centralised and control-freak education
system, it is unaccountable to anyone but the Secretary of State for Education
and Skills. The appointed membership of the LSC and its 47 subsidiaries remains
unrepresentative of local schools and colleges, an imbalance that needs
redressing as Bryan Sanderson admitted when I questioned him last November.

"Other areas of concern about the structure of the LSC abound. It has
been accused of being over-staffed, partly because it inherited the Training
and Enterprise Council workforce that had doubled in size between 1996 and
1999. Costs of office accommodation have also come under fire with accusations
of unnecessarily expensive premises helping to push the LSC’s administration
costs up to 3.9 per cent of the total budget.

On 12 November, John Harwood, chief executive of the LSC, told the Education
and Skills Select Committee that its administration costs were £188m, yet only
four weeks later a Government letter on 10 December showed it had risen to

"Operationally, there is an unresolved question about how far the LSC
can or should be able to direct and co-ordinate colleges and schools with
regard to the courses they provide.

"Further confusion has arisen over the 2002-2003 school budgets in some
areas. In Derbyshire, for example, the local LSC on 13 December told a school
for 11- to 18-year-olds that it would be getting a £2.8m increase in its
funding for pupils over the age of 16. But on 14 December, Derbyshire County
Council (which had always funded its post-16 pupils at a low level) told
schools they would have this money clawed back via reductions in their 11- to
16-year-old funding."

Alastair Thomson
Policy and development officer, National Institute of Adult Continuing

"The first thing to recognise is that the council succeeded in assuming
its responsibilities last year without calamitous problems. Taking over
stewardship of an enormous amount of public money, along with the employment of
disparate TEC and FEFC personnel, was no mean task. While keeping the show on
the road doesn’t make headlines, the LSC deserves real credit for this.

"Establishing a new shared culture takes time and has clearly not been
easy. So it is perhaps unfair to judge how well things are going after just a
year, but to outside eyes there seems still to be an unresolved tension between
the 47 local councils and the national council. One can understand that some of
the more dynamic local executive directors and local council members are sore
at being constrained or steered from the central LSC, but it is the national
staff and council members that have to work on a day-to-day basis with an
interventionist Department for Education and Skills and also with the Treasury.

"How this national/local relationship develops will be something to
watch closely in the months ahead, especially as the regional focus to
policy-making assumes greater importance. Also worth watching will be the
extent to which the Secretary of State’s concern for the 14 to 19 age group
distracts the LSC from its main tasks.

"It is fair to say that public affairs management has not been a high
point of the LSC’s work to date. LSC chief executive John Harwood’s infamous
remarks on the Today programme that "about 40 per cent of the provision
across the whole of the sector is just unacceptable", was neither helpful
nor accurate and blew away a substantial stock of goodwill within the college
sector by suggesting that provision graded as satisfactory by inspectors was
now ‘unacceptable’.

"More positively, the intentions to simplify funding streams and cut
red tape are strong measures, as is the robust approach taken by Bryan
Sanderson to those who would defend unviable sixth-forms.

"Challenges for the LSC in the coming year include developing a strong
strategy for workforce development; the delivery of the basic skills strategy
and a further levelling of the funding playing field in order to better support
cost-effective adult and community learning and also encourage new forms of
provision and providers."

Ruth Spellman
Chief executive officer, Investors in People UK

"During its first year of operation, the Learning and Skills Council
has become a key partner for Investors in People UK.

"Retaining many of the skills of the Training and Enterprise Councils
(TECs) but with a strong focus on national as well as regional needs, the LSC
offers a broad range of services, products and advice – while effectively
streamlining post-16 learning. Covering everything from basic skills to NVQ
level 3, the LSC is also responsible for the critical area of workplace

"The LSC’s systems and personnel are up and running nationwide and
Investors in People UK is working closely with the LSC to establish its wider
workplace development agenda and to define the role of Investors in People
within that agenda. Structures have also been put in place to allow parties to
input into the decision-making process.

"The LSC and Investors in People UK have agreed a 20-point action plan
that, it is hoped, will move the Investors in People standard forward as a
central component of UK workplace development.

"The next 12 months will prove critical, with both the LSC workforce
development strategy and the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit report
due to be published. From an Investors in People perspective, with a joint
strategy in place, it is then that the real strengths and advantages of the LSC
will be fully appreciated."

Bill Lucas
Chief executive of the Campaign for Learning

"It may be a year since the LSC began, but it is far too early to
praise or damn the 48 organisations that make it up. Not surprisingly, some
agendas have not moved on much in the last 12 months because a whole new
infrastructure has had to be created. But we knew that this would be the case
so should not criticise. That there should at last be a national body with the
statutory duty to promote lifelong learning has sustained us throughout this
start-up phase.

"At a local level, the Campaign for Learning’s experience is one of
great progress having been made. Flexible grant-making is happening and LSCs
are also supporting family learning and other important areas.

"At national level it has inevitably been more complicated. There have
been some areas where the lack of key people at senior level has delayed
matters and others – like the workforce development work carried out by the PIU
at the Cabinet Office – which have imposed slower time-scales on the LSC’s own

"In the year coming, I will want to see how the LSC is going to
interpret its Section 4 responsibility to promote learning. We know the value
of national PR campaigns that connect with and engage practitioners at a local
level and want to see more resources going into them. We know a lot about what works
well and want to see active attempts by the LSC to capture these kinds of

"I personally want the LSC to take some risks: to take the lead on the
accreditation of prior learning; get radical with time-off for learning, make
the case for informal learning; and help to reposition the son or daughter of
ILAs as the means of really putting buying power in the hands of the

The aims of the Learning and Skills Council

– To be responsive to the skills needs of individuals and

– To promote employability for individuals by equipping them
with skills in demand in the labour market

– To help employers develop individual employees and their
whole workforce to achieve world-class business performance

– To ensure targeted support for the most disadvantaged

– To ensure equality of opportunity

– To secure the entitlement of all 16 to 19-year-olds to stay
in learning

– To maximise participation, retention and achievement, to make
progress towards the National Learning Targets for 2002 and beyond

– To remove unnecessary bureaucracy

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