The close of 2002 brought encouraging signals that the Government is
committed to the skills agenda. Yet as we move into 2003 the ‘Skills for
Business’ network still has a long way to go in boosting skills and the demand
Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke has already had
to defend the skills agenda. Speaking at the first-ever UK Skills Convention,
organised by the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) in November, he
alluded to criticisms that skills had taken second place to education in the
Department. "I have absolutely no intention that skills should be seen as
anything other than an absolutely major priority for this department and this
Government," he said.
He also promised closer ties between the DfES and the DTI. "Patricia
Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and I have already met
to decide how we can get our two departments working more closely together.
Because the truth is we haven’t worked as closely together as we need to."
Various sector skills stakeholders – employers, Sector Skills Council (SSC)
members, trade unionists, training providers and those from the former NTO
network – attended the two-day convention. The organisers will summarise key
issues emerging from their workshops and present them as a challenge to the
Government. This is intended to feed into the National Skills Strategy and
Delivery Plan, scheduled for publication in June.
Ivan Lewis, Adult Learning and Skills Minister, spelt out his expectations
of the Skills for Business network. He wants the SSDA to make an impact on
levels of employer engagement and awareness and deliver measurable progress on
specific skills needs and issues within particular sectors. Employer engagement
was insufficient at present, he said, being pitched far too much at the level
of the old NTO network. "As part of the SSDA’s corporate planning
consultation process, I shall be looking for evidence that the new network is
moving significantly beyond the usual suspects and engaging fresh blood in the
challenge of implementing a more ambitious vision for sectors," he said.
The biggest concern to those attending the convention, however, was that it
could take five years for the network to be fully up and running.
The following week the SSDA gave the go ahead to two more prospective SSCs
to move into development. The Automotive Skills Council will take over from
former NTO the Motor Industry Training Council to meet the skills, workforce
development and business needs of the motor retail industry and SummitSkills
will represent the electrotechnical, heating, ventilating air conditioning,
refrigeration and plumbing industries.
Simon Bartley runs two companies in the latter sector and is chairman of the
SummitSkills implementation group. He acknowledges the need to improve employer
enthusiasm but believes his council has a solid foundation on which to develop
the skills agenda.
Bartley has clear views on the role of the SSDA. "There is so much
going on, with the work of the skills task force, review of Modern
Apprenticeships and 14-19 education and other initiatives. I think the SSDA
needs to be at the heart of that, drawing things together, working in
partnership with SSCs on the interpretation of these messages. It needs to be
the keystone of the arch," he said.
"The SSDA needs to keep talking to the DfES and DTI to try and
streamline many of the ideas that relate to the mechanisms of delivery. It has
to ensure the Government keeps those two departments talking to each other on a
Bartley believes the SSDA must keep in touch with grassroots. "It has
to understand where employers are coming from. It’s got to answer back to
government on behalf of SSCs – if it doesn’t it will just become an enforcing
By Elaine Essery