Sector skills plans still fail to impress

Employers say they are confused, not enthused, by the announcement of a new
national skills network to replace the NTOs. Elaine Essery finds out why

Elaborate charade or visionary tactic? The jury is out on government
proposals to establish an employer-led network of Sector Skills Councils and an
independent Sector Skills Development Agency to police it.

Delegates at October’s employer skills summit and NTO National Council
conference heard announcements from Education and Skills Secretary Estelle
Morris and Adult Skills Minister John Healey on plans to bring about a
step-change in the planning and delivery of education and training to meet
employer needs. They are detailed in Meeting the Sector Skills and Productivity
Challenge, the Government’s response to the Building a Stronger Network
consultation on the future on NTOs.

Just how the new set-up will work remains unclear and a development guide
setting out how the network can be formed is expected this month.

What is clear is that the 72 existing NTOs will cease to be recognised in
March 2002.

A much smaller number of bodies will be awarded licences by the SSDA to
become SSCs. Fitness for purpose, critical mass of employer support and sector
scale will be key licensing criteria.

By the end of November, six trailblazer SSCs will be announced to set
standards for others to follow. These are likely to include some of the most
effective NTOs as well as new groupings of sector employers.

Employer-led groups will then be invited to submit proposals to become SSCs.
Some may be built on the strongest NTOs, but the Government believes that only
a small minority of NTOs are currently fit to deliver the remit of SSCs.

Exceptional funding will be granted to NTOs working towards SSC proposals or
where essential sector-related work needs to continue.


Government recognises employers’ concerns that the present system seems dominated
by colleges and training providers rather than consumers.

In return for their buy-in, it is promising employers an influential voice
in a system of demand-led, cradle-to-grave education and training provision.

NTO National Council chief executive Andy Powell sees great potential for
the new network to have a big impact.

"Individually NTOs do good things for their industry, but collectively
the network is quite simply not making a difference to school curricula,
qualifications, higher education or where the LSC in England spends all its
money. NTOs weren’t set up to do that," he says.

"The deal is that employers coming together in larger, strategic units
will have a determining influence to improve the whole education, learning and
skills system. Employers have to trust Government on that."


But there is distrust among employers. Many are cynical and frustrated at
what they see as an unnecessary reinvention of the wheel.

Michael Parkinson, president of engineering company Airedale Springs,
supports the idea of NTOs, but is critical that they were allowed to

"Why can’t the Government have the guts to say there’s nothing wrong
with NTOs in principle, but that they need pruning and encouraging to come
together. In a sense, that’s what they’re doing, but yet again we have to
experience the confusion of renaming and rebranding them," he says.

Parkinson wholeheartedly agrees that employers matter and that sectors are
important. Had the former Tec director not experienced the ragged transition
from Tecs to LSCs, he would probably have been happy with the policy statement.

"It’s a good document and, taken in isolation, it reads well," he
says. "But in terms of what’s behind it, I’m more cynical. I, like many
employers, have lost patience with the ways in which Government operates.

"I’m sick of politicians reinventing things and repairing things which
don’t need repairing. And I don’t think I’m on my own."

He isn’t. "I think the Government is again confusing everyone,"
says John Bambery, MD of Lancastrian Labels and Print, and chairman of the
Print and Graphic Communication NTO.

"NTOs were only set up a few years ago, and we’ve had great difficulty
in explaining to employers what NTOs are. They’ve now come up with something
new, as if to reinvent the wheel, and, again, no-one seems to know exactly how
it’s going to work. It’s going to be a re-education exercise in getting through
to employers," he says.

Bambery is critical of the failure of successive governments to follow through
training initiatives to their final conclusion before making changes when
things appear not to be working. It makes the task of engaging employers all
the more difficult.

"The Government fails to recognise that a vast number of companies in
all sectors have no desire to have anything to do with training. It’s very
difficult to involve them when they don’t see an end gain and regard it as more

Graham Wescott is chairman of GJ Holdings – a group of companies operating
in road haulage, warehousing, distribution, shipping and forwarding.

"I can’t trust the Government," he says. "It started from a
situation where it wanted something less than 72 NTOs, but there ought to be an
easier way of getting rid of some of the dead wood without having to go through
this charade of consultation, reassessment and making sectors get

Wescott, who is also chairman of the Road Haulage and Distribution Training
Council, is concerned that road haulage may become part of a much bigger
transport SSC which will fail to meet sector needs.

"We work with other transport NTOs now and we all have different
problems. If you have too big a sector with lots of little sectors underneath,
it will just create a monolythic structure which achieves nothing."

It is a concern shared by employers in the broadcasting sector represented
by Skillset.

But Peter Meier, head of human resources at Channel 4, is encouraged that
fitness for purpose will be key. "Skillset has good support from the
industry and is already achieving much of what the Government is aiming
for," he says. "The worry we had was that it would be put together
with other ex-NTOs in a larger grouping which may not have been appropriate as
far as we were concerned."

Others welcome rationalisation into larger units. Dr Michael Sanderson,
chief executive of EMTA, the NTO for engineering manufacture, says, "I
think it will make a difference and it’s the right way to go. What I’d like to
see is, say, 25 bodies of equal strength.

"One of the problems is that there’s a lot of in-fighting because we’re
different sorts of organisations. A smaller number of organisations that are
more or less the same, with more or less the same income and number of staff,
would find it easier to co-operate."


Karen Price, chief executive of the e-skills NTO, has direct experience of
the benefits of rationalisation. Over a period of 18 months, she saw three NTOs
merge to form the present IT sector NTO.

"Now we’re at the end of the process, we’re much stronger and more capable
and we have a much bigger voice as an NTO because of the rationalisation,"
she says.

Price foresees no difficulties in adapting to SSC requirements, and is
thoroughly positive. "Our employers are delighted that they’re going to
have a far greater role to play in the skills agenda and realise that working
with us collectively they can make a bigger difference than trying to tackle
things individually," Price says.

"There are issues that need clarifying, but I genuinely believe the
Government intent is there to get it right and I think we as employers and
employer-owned organisations can work with the Government until we do get it

Financing future arrangements is an issue. Funding for the new sector network
is set to double in 2002/2003 and treble the following year. Each SSC will
receive up to £1m a year, but Meier believes it is not enough to meet all the
Government requires of SSCs.

"Employers in our industry give quite a lot of money to Skillset – last
year Channel 4 gave £625,000 in all. In the current environment, we’re not
going to be able to increase our contribution and it will be the same for
others in the sector," he says.

"Government is being over-ambitious in what it can achieve with its
funding. It’s got to review that."

And there is disappointment in progress so far. Delegates had hoped Healey
would give details of how to bid to become an SSC but, says Sanderson, "We
heard nothing more than the minister told us at a briefing a month before."

Absence of agreement from the devolved administrations on this UK-wide
initiative is thought to be behind the delay. "EMTA will certainly be
putting in a bid to represent engineering with the full support of the
employer, trade union and institutions community. But, apart from lobbying,
there’s very little we can do formally now."

Powell understands the negativity expressed by some parties and concludes,
"I think the vision is right and I’m hopeful about a lot of things. The
big issue for Government is its ability to manage this change and the
transition effectively and on that I think there are questions at the

SSC countdown

November 2001

– SSC network development guide published

– Advertisements for chairperson and chief exec of SSDA appear

– Trailblazer SSCs announced

December 2001

– Advertisements for the board of the SSDA appear

– Trailblazer SSC development contracts agreed

January/February 2002

– Chairperson and chief executive of SSDA appointed

– SSDA begins work. Senior management recruited and staff
seconded from government departments, devolved administrations and the NTO
network to run the agency

– SSC proposals accepted

March 2002

– NTO recognition ceases

– Contracting for exceptional continuing funding for NTOs

April 2002

– SSDA fully operational

– Contracting for mainstream SSC development completed

– Awarding of contracts to SSCs commences

August 2002

– Exceptional funding to NTOs ceases

– SSDA takes responsibility for sectors not covered by a SSC

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