Will employers board partnership scheme?

Launched in 2001, the Government’s Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) programme aimed to recognise training providers with high standards in a specialised occupational area and give them a capital funding boost – all in the name of increasing the level of participation and achievement in vocational training and education.

At the heart of the Government’s CoVE agenda is the concept of partnership – between providers, learning and skills councils, sector skills councils, regional development agencies and, not least, employers themselves. Providers must show evidence of working with industry as part of their bid to become CoVEs.

Now, three years into the programme, there are 260 CoVEs across England in a broad range of sectors, and there are signs that the standard of employer engagement on skills is moving beyond the stuff of mere talking shops, though it is by no means consistent across the network.

Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) into CoVEs’ engagement with employers and key stakeholders found that employers using CoVEs were broadly positive about the experience.

However, the report said most employers already involved with CoVEs have a strong tradition of working with colleges and providers that pre-dates the existence of CoVEs. Getting more employers on board remains a challenge, the report concludes, and the factor most strongly affecting whether employers work with CoVEs is “tailored, flexibly timed and reasonably priced provision.”

Partnership success
Iain Smith, head of engineering and technical skills for London Underground, believes the Government’s approach to CoVEs was to give “first bite” to colleges rather than launch CoVEs in response to employer “demand”.

The Underground has been instrumental in establishing a new CoVE for rail earlier this year. “We ‘commissioned’ it at a time when we were ready to use it and when we knew the things we wanted it to do,” says Smith. “We’re the lead customer of the CoVE and because we’ve been there from the very beginning, it works.”

When the programme was launched, CoVE status was available only to colleges, but in less than a year the Government opened status to work-based learning providers as well, and this latest CoVE for rail illustrates that employers participating in CoVEs are more likely to use commercial training providers than further education (FE) or community providers.

The new CoVE was awarded to Four Counties Training, though Barnet College is a lead partner.

“The LSC is in the business of improving the skills and productivity of the nation, and we have a variety of providers helping us to do that,” says Greg Cejer, CoVE co-programme manager for the LSC, citing British Aerospace and British Gas as examples of companies whose training arms are CoVEs in their own right. “We have to treat them equally, and some of our best CoVEs are outside the college sector.”


CoVE status lasts for four years, though two have been stripped of their status due to poor inspection grades or financial concerns. The first three years of CoVE status bring funding –mainly for equipment – varying from £400,000 for a CoVE involving one entity up to £900,000 for a partnership of four or five, according to Cejer.

In the fourth year the CoVE is tested to see whether it is self-sustaining. “The way they sustain their activity is to develop more provision, particularly full cost provision [in the form of short courses] for employers,” says Cejer.

 “They’ve got to grow that as a target for their development. One of the things the Government has wanted as part of its skills strategy is for the state, the individual and the employer to have a balance of funding.”

It’s a common view among employers involved in CoVEs, and even some stakeholders, that those CoVEs coming on stream more recently have more innovative strategies in place regarding employer engagement.

Standards improving

Cejer won’t be drawn on whether we’re seeing a disparity in terms of quality across the network, but he admits the “standards of the proposals are definitely improving” .

He says: “The goalposts haven’t moved in terms of the criteria changing, but there are a lot more providers understanding exactly what we mean by CoVE and putting forward high quality proposals.”

Indeed, where CoVEs are succeeding with employer engagement, it’s down to much more than employer questionnaires or steering groups and committees.

Those may exist, but partnership takes the form of mutual hard work on the ground and a sharing of expertise that goes beyond the talking shop approach (see boxes). It’s the colleges who engage with employers on this kind of level that will improve the profile of FE among employers, says John Lockey, industrial manager for North Tyneside College’s CoVE in mechatronics.

“Colleges have always talked to industry, but because they’ve had some prime funding, colleges are more able to respond to employer needs,” says Lockey. “At one time a lot of colleges had some very old equipment that didn’t meet industry standard – they didn’t have the relationships that we have now.”

The Sector Skills Council (SSC) for the construction industry has recently commissioned research with the aim of getting a definitive picture of employer engagement among the sector’s 40 CoVEs.

“We need a consistent level of engagement across the board,” says Allan Hamilton, policy analyst for the CITB-Construction Skills. “We also want more strategic input to identify best practice or broker in employer engagement to work with CoVEs on leading edge stuff.”

Employer champions

Hamilton would like to see the Government promote some “employer champions” within the network rather than be prescriptive and issue a “wish list” of how CoVEs should engage with employers.

Such champions would doubtless include companies such as SMC Pneumatics (UK), a key partner in North Tyneside College’s CoVE. “I’ve seen the injection of cash going into the engineering sector have payback for the first time with CoVEs,” says Martin Bevin, business development manager for SMC Pneumatics (UK). “I would very much like to think the Government has a forward-thinking plan for this to continue in the future.

“What we need is more buy-in from manufacturing for these CoVEs to continue,” he explains. “My concern is it’s a great idea, but there needs to be more leverage inside manufacturing to be able to release people on training.”

As for what will create that leverage, funding to develop staff is the determining factor. But regardless of what form engagement takes, there’s no question that CoVEs need to be reaching out to greater numbers of employers if the Government is to meet its targets around increasing participation in vocational training. And on that front, the SSCs, as employer-led bodies tasked with driving up skills and productivity in particular sectors, have an obvious role to play.

But the SSCs are themselves newly formed. The LSC network launched in April 2001, with CoVE network following later that year, and the first SSCs came on stream in March 2002. This means some SSCs are still finding their feet or, in some cases, such as the rail industry, an agreement has yet to be reached.

Could do better

This activity over the last three years, and the CoVE network in particular, has raised the profile of vocational learning, but the impact on employers is “perhaps not so evident” at this stage, says John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

Implementation of CoVEs has highlighted a number of planning issues concerning the pattern of provision, for example, how many CoVEs are necessary for a given sector and in which regions they should be located.

“The dialogue around those kinds of issues has probably not gone as far as one would like,” says Brennan. “But those are issues for the evolution of the CoVE programme over the next few years.”

SMC PNEUMATICS: Reflecting industry

Automation engineering company SMC Pneumatics (UK) and North Tyneside College have been working closely for years to make academic programmes reflect industry need. It is a vision that has become a reality with the college’s achievement of CoVE status last year – and the £400,000 cash injection from the Government that came with it.

The CoVE was the first in the UK for the field of mechatronics, which integrates mechanical, electrical, electronic and software engineering with IT to maintain equipment in complex areas such as automation. With CoVE funding, the college has revamped its training facilities and resources – including buying state-of-the-art equipment from SMC Pneumatics, which in turn provides training for college staff. Two new training centres were completed earlier this year, one of them sponsored by Atmel North Tyneside.

“Industry has to be proactive and colleges have to respond to what industry needs, not say ‘this is what we have, take it or leave it,’” says John Lockey, industrial manager for the North Tyneside CoVE. Lockey is seconded three days a week to work as regional training and development co-ordinator for colleges and employers – a role funded by industry and symbolic of the partnership approach being taken by the mechatronics sector.

SMC Pneumatics (UK) also works with other engineering CoVEs, which helps promote the dissemination of best practice and boosts the pool of potential employees who are adequately trained, says Martin Bevin, business development manager for SMC Pneumatics (UK). “As a manufacturer, we are running out of people to employ for the skills set we need. The introduction of CoVEs could be what’s needed to pull the right amount of people back into the industry.”

ROLLS-ROYCE: A real sense of community

For Rolls-Royce, being a partner in Derby College’s CoVE for engineering is a means of strengthening the training and education base – for itself as well as the wider engineering community in the region.

“It was important that young apprentices were introduced to team-based working and lean engineering techniques, and it was also important that we should be in a situation of supporting small and medium-sized enterprises around us through lean engineering,” says Dave Hazelwood, engineering skills training manager for Rolls-Royce. “If you have a standpoint on corporate social responsibility, then you should be supporting local employers if you can. You can’t just exist in a vacuum.”

Amicus, too, is a partner in the CoVE, which has put together a programme of short courses for business on lean engineering in addition to the academic programmes for NVQs and BTECs. With CoVE funding, the college has refurbished its workshops, and Rolls-Royce has helped with developing college staff and designing training materials.

“We’re sharing best practice on training,” says Hazelwood. “Rolls-Royce and Derby College are both moving forward in delivering modern business practices.

“As engineering has been slimming in the UK, we feel it’s important to support the local college, or you won’t have one.”

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