Another election year is upon us and given that the heat of the debate on public expenditure will probably be without precedent, the next twelve months may be hugely significant for everyone who works in the employment and skills sector.

The Association of Learning Providers (ALP) is no different from any other representative organisation of having a wish-list for its members for the coming year, but we are very mindful of the fiscal challenges ahead and the need for work based learning providers to be delivering value for money which helps to drive the economy out of this recession.

In these times, ALP believes that it is vital that no action is taken that might damage the take-up of Apprenticeships by both individual and employers if we are to retain and develop a skilled workforce ready and able to take up the opportunities that become available as the economy recover.

Apprenticeship frameworks have been developed over many years and provide the foundation stone on which work based learning must be built and funding for Apprenticeship must continue at the very least at current levels. The opportunity should be taken to broaden the Apprenticeship ‘family’ to retain and expand further Level 2 and 3 (especially Level 3) but also formally include Level 4/Foundation Degree level, to strengthen the brand and the scope for high level progression through to HE.

Basic skills for the unemployed must be a priority

Support for adult skills development will undoubtedly be reviewed whichever party is in power and we would suggest it is time to move towards a greater sharing of responsibility for the development of those in employment, with Government, employers, and in some cases individuals themselves, co-funding provision for this group of people. This would release greater levels of government funding to support those individuals facing a period of unemployment. The priority for this unemployed group should be basic skills - developing them up to their first Level 2 qualification, or in some cases replacing ‘redundant’ Level 2 qualifications.

Opportunities to cut costs

In the drive to find cost savings, one option would be to concentrate ‘improvement’ support totally under LSIS, which might involve the merging in of some Becta and LLUK functions/funding. LSIS is increasingly provider driven by its elected Council of providers, and this would strengthen further the opportunity to ensure support monies are properly and effectively targeted at areas of real need.

It is vital that providers have more say in the development of quality standards and performance indicators. There should be a simplified system which would reduce both the costs and the bureaucracy involved, and ALP can still see no reason not to use the well known, understood and established EQF system, which can be easily adapted to meet the expectations of both Government and employers. Ofsted could then be used, as now, for the necessary external inspection and verification of providers’ own self assessment processes.

ALP would like to see a preferred supplier system, based on a rigorous analysis of the provider’s track record whilst still allowing new providers to enter the system, as this would significantly cut cost

Basic principles for FE funding

Whilst it is essential to cut unnecessary costs wherever possible there are some fundamental principles that must be retained if the quality and performance of the sector is to be maintained and grown.

From the very start, ALP has argued for a level playing field for FE funding. All funding lines should be accessible by any provider with the capacity to deliver to the specification set out by the funder, and there should be no artificial divisions between different types of organisation, be they public, private or third sector, when allocating funds. Learners deserve the best service possible so all funding should be routed through the providers best able to deliver training services to learners and employers.

Recently some new programmes and budgets have only been available to some sections of the sector (e.g. 75,000 places for young unemployed learners was ring fenced for colleges although it is the independent sector that has the expertise in delivering services for the unemployed, with many already contracted to provide these services for DWP) and this policy should end under any government looking for value for money.

Developing a demand led funding system

Whilst there have been problems with the so-called demand led funding system introduced by the LSC, these have largely resulted from mismanagement. Now is not the time to move back to a rigid, pre-planned, pre-determined allocation system. The recent economic downturn came suddenly, out of the blue, and has resulted in a deep recession that no-one could have predicted even a few months before. Given this total unpredictability it is vital that any future FE funding system is truly demand led, capable of responding to the real time needs of the economy and employers.

Addressing the challenges of 16-18 provision

The significant transfer of LSC responsibilities to the local authorities (LAs) for 16-18 learning and skills provision has posed major challenges for work based learning providers, particularly those that operate nationally or across regions. One of the challenges is the lack of visibility of independent providers to LAs and ALP has been working closely with the DCSF and the REACT team at the LGA to address this over the past twelve months.

Provision, such as the Foundation Learning Tier and the Entry to Employment programme which is so vital for the NEET group of young people in this recession, will be commissioned by the LAs. ALP is regularly told by LAs that our members are the answer to raising the participation age and the NEET problem, not to mention the added opportunities of delivering training to 14-16 year olds, but the key to these opportunities for providers is a good and effective relationship with LAs at a local level.

There are a few issues holding this back - not least the potential contracting and commissioning arrangements, the capacity of providers to engage with the plethora of organisations needed for this type of operation and the LAs’ understanding of (or willingness to understand) the independent work based learning sector. ALP is aware of many LAs who have good working relationships with providers, yet as members have fed back to us, there are still too many who do not. Time is running short in terms of overcoming these challenges.

The FE and skills system is going through a period of significant reform and 2010 may herald further change. However, the recession means that we must all focus on what really counts - delivering first-rate training to employers and learners hoping for a brighter future.

Graham Hoyle OBE is chief executive of ALP, the voice of independent learning providers throughout England

Read other FE News articles by Graham Hoyle:

UKCES grasps the nettle of the real challenges ahead, says ALP chief

ALP chief proposes green scheme built around Apprenticeship frameworks

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