The time is now

The latest White Paper on skills was more than the publication of an outline of ideas. It bore all the hallmarks of a well-orchestrated, slick campaign to demonstrate that the government and its agencies are serious about skills improvement and have concrete solutions to back up their claims. On the same day that chancellor Gordon Brown launched the White Paper, education secretary Ruth Kelly joined Philip Green, owner of retail group Arcadia, to unveil plans for a Fashion Retail Academy in London’s West End. Set to open this autumn, the initial 20m funding will be split between Arcadia and the government.

Also coinciding with the White Paper launch was the publication of a report by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), highlighting the skills gaps in the UK workforce and the importance of management skills to the economy. Meanwhile, the Skills for Business network of Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) was doing its bit to raise the profile of the employer’s role in the mix – with full-page advertisements in the national press detailing why businesses should get involved in their SSCs. And also launched in tandem with the White Paper were the sector skills agreements of the first four ‘pathfinder’ SSCs – detailing actions they are taking with employers to address skills issues in their respective sectors.

With the government picking up the pace on skills, there is a sense we are fast approaching make-or-break time for vocational training, and that it’s employers who hold the key to making the system work.

It could be argued that the government is doing its part. It is finally responding to UK plc’s long-standing complaint of basic skills deficiencies in its workforce, with the White Paper outlining plans to deliver “free and flexible” training up to level 2 [ie five GCSEs or equivalent] through a National Employer Training Programme. It is also going to pilot the subsidising of further training at level 3 [ie technician, craft and associate professional level] in two areas, most likely to be areas of social deprivation where skills shortages are particularly acute.

The government has also extended a role for unions in increasing adult participation in skills training – with funding attached to increase the number of union learning representatives in places of work, and to create a national Union Academy to support them.

Sector Skills councils

For years, the government has hammered home the message that vocational training should be demand-led and not supplier-driven, and that the design of the system and qualifications should reflect the needs of employers rather than training providers. This was the ideal behind the establishment of the Learning and Skills Councils four years ago, and the subsequent scrapping of National Training Organisations, with Sector Skills Councils set up in their place.

The network of SSCs is still in development, and while there are a few gaps where certain sectors have lagged behind in setting up a body to represent them – such as rail and teaching – there is no disputing the progress made by early pathfinder councils. Semta, Skillset, CITB ConstructionSkills, and e-skills UK show the potential of SSCs to steer genuine employer involvement in skills solutions for their sectors.
For example, IT employers played a major role in designing the course content for a new IT management degree that combines technical knowledge of computing with business acumen – the biggest skill requirement facing the industry today – and broadcasting employers are helping to design and implement a number of screen academies (see box).

Christopher Duff, chief executive of the Sector Skills Development Agency, which oversees the SSC network, believes the skills issue is very much in people’s minds at the moment, but clarity does remain an issue.

“You’ve got an existing qualifications base that in some sectors is confusing to many employers, and you’ve got a range of government agencies that many employers don’t understand the remit of,” says Duff. “To have clarity you need leadership, and the SSCs are best placed to do that.”

As long as employers don’t understand the qualifications network, they will simply opt out of it and do their own thing when it comes to training their people – meaning solutions will never address the long-term needs of a sector as a whole.

“What we don’t have is a free market in skills,” says Duff. “What we do have, is a huge range of publicly-funded provisions, and often a separate, privately-funded provision [by employers]. We want the two to be much more aligned.”

Regardless of the strategic approach that now seems to be taken with regard to skills, there are concerns that many employers remain confused and cynical about multiple initiatives they cannot relate to.

Richard Wainer, senior policy adviser on skills at the CBI, says: “If you look at the whole system from the top, it’s ridiculously confusing. There are so many government agencies charged with delivering advice and guidance on skills, such as RDAs (Regional Development Agencies), LSCs (Learning Sector Skills Councils), and Business Links. They don’t really link up very well.”

Regional partnerships

The government is attempting to address confusion through the regional skills partnerships – which are meant to bring together all the agencies involved in delivering and implementing training in a region, and provide coherence.

“I don’t think employers have seen much impact yet,” says Wainer. “The learning and skills sector is riddled with acronyms, and not many employers really understand them.”

Matthew Poyiadgi, regional director of CompTIA, a trade association for the IT industry which designs IT certification courses for the industry, says there is no question that many employers are engaging in the process, but the same ones tend to be mentioned time and again.

“We work with employers every day, and these guys still don’t understand what an NVQ is,” he says.

“One of the great steps forward is how the government and awarding bodies have integrated vendor certifications such as CompTIA and Microsoft into the qualifications network. In the past, the commercial marketplace only used these. Now, colleges get funding to teach these.”
Nevertheless, he believes there is still a place for national qualifications, such as the e-skills initiative known as ITQ, that are flexible and show a clear learning pathway.

In broadcasting, NVQs failed to have credibility, and were eventually withdrawn, says Nigel Paine, head of BBC training and development. “We were in the absurd position of a BBC qualification having more value [than an NVQ].”

The ideal – to echo Duff’s vision – is to be a BBC-qualified engineer, but with universal recognition, says Paine. “We want the BBC to be in that sense validated from outside.”


Plans for regional brokers to assist employers in sourcing training solutions will to help provide clarity for employers, says Jaine Clarke, the LSC’s director of skills strategy and planning.

“Skills brokers will be impartial advisers working alongside business links, sector skills councils and regional skills partnerships,” says Clarke. “In the Employer Training Pilot areas, there are already skills brokers working alongside the pilots. We expect to start rolling that out from 2006-7.”

The CBI is quick to point out that success will depend on high-quality brokers.

“We’re not sure if the infrastructure is there yet,” says Wainer. “Colleges and providers also need to be offering a flexible service that actually meets employers’ needs.”

Success will depend on “how all the players impact and work together”, says Bert Clough, senior research officer for the TUC – not least employers.

“It’s up to employers to understand the need for high-quality training – and the benefits they get from it,” he says. “All the evidence is that employers don’t.”

Clarke admits the offer to employers is still patchy, but within the next three years, the infrastructure will be in place to ensure clarity, and enable universal participation by employers.

“They’ll no longer be able to say the system is too complicated and doesn’t meet employer needs,” she says.

Key points from the white paper

  • The National Employers Training Programme will provide free basic skills training in the workplace to the equivalent of five GCSEs, as well as a network of brokers to help employers identify their business training needs and source provision. The programme of free tuition is based on Employer Training Pilots, and will be rolled out across the country by 2008.
  • Pilots in two regions – yet to be announced – will benefit from 40m over two years to extend subsidised training to NVQ level 3, with funding to be matched by contributions from employers.
  • Up to 12 national skills academies will be established over the next three years to focus on the needs of particular sectors and raise the status and value of vocational training. The academies are intended to dovetail with existing Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) already in place for some sub-sectors.
  • Over two years, 4.5m will be used to create a national Union Academy to enhance the role of trade unions in learning and increase the number of union learning representatives in the workplace from 8,000 to 22,000.
  • It affirms that the developing network of Sector Skills Councils (SSC) is on track and well-placed to represent employers’ needs on skills.

Skills on screen

Central to the government’s vision for skills is that employers play a greater role in shaping training provision for their sector. The White Paper proposes national skills academies – at least one for each sector, such as the Fashion Retail Academy, which is half-funded by Philip Green, owner of retail group Arcadia – as one way to achieve that goal.

The academies would overlap with the Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) already based in the regions for a number of sectors, says Jaine Clarke, the LSC’s director of skills strategy and planning. “They could draw on a number of CoVEs in their sector,” she says. “They would feed off each other in terms of developments and best practice.”

Skillset, the sector skills council (SSC) for broadcast, film, video, interactive media and photo imaging, and one of the four pathfinder SSCs, is leading a move to get employers to decide on the core curriculum the sector requires, says Nigel Paine, head of BBC training and development.

As a result, ‘screen academies’ based in colleges, universities or consortia of the two, are now in the works, with up to six to be announced shortly, according to Paine.

“Because of government investment, they can buy the latest technology,” explains Paine. “We can have their staff in the BBC, and our staff spending time in a learning environment with students.”

He adds: “I think they will act as a vortex and drag up other media courses across the country and offer expertise. We want to make them a success, not just in terms of attracting students, but in giving a flavour of the reality of working in the industry.”

Union power for learning

The White Paper acknowledges the role of trade unions in boosting skills training, and that the government will fund an increase in the number of union learning representatives and the establishment of a national union academy to support learning.

There are some 400 union learning centres in workplaces across the country, along with 8,000 union learning representatives who broker courses and advise members on learning.

“The unions and the union learning reps have put a lot of effort into putting pressure on employers to deliver basic skills to the workforce, and a lot of that work has been happening in the learning centres,” says Bert Clough, senior research officer for the TUC. “Without the unions negotiating these things, it just wouldn’t happen. The union learning reps are trusted.”

The government has said it will provide 1.5m of developmental money in 2006-07 for the union academy – rising to 3m the following year. Not necessarily a ‘bricks and mortar’ organisation, the academy will offer training programmes for union activists and officials, along with a learning helpline, says Clough.

“There will also be centres of excellence in the regions, based on existing trade union sites, colleges or departments in the regions. They will support the union learning reps, put on training for them and help them to support the centres.

“The scope is very wide indeed,” he adds. “It will take a long time to develop all of those facilities to an optimal level, but our objective is to have 22,000 reps by 2010.”

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