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On Thursday, Martin Dunford, chairman of the Association of Learning Providers, will be participating in a national online seminar on the new consultation by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) for simplifying the FE and training system.

The consultation (www.commissionconsultation.com) has assumed greater importance and urgency with the deepening of the recession and the worrying state of the public finances.

Our sector is going to have to share its burden of the pain that many public services will experience over the coming months as Whitehall departments search for efficiency savings. However, it would be fair to say that even when times were good, the ‘wiring’ behind the delivery of learning and skills was perhaps over-resourced and over-complicated. Moreover, it could be argued that our customers, i.e. employers and individual learners, have been denied a level of service which, whilst consistently improving in recent years, could have been significantly better.

Now is the time for action and the Association of Learning Providers, which has been a long-time advocate of rationalisation, has recently published fresh proposals on how government should go about the challenge. This has coincided with the UKCES chairman, Sir Mike Rake, publishing an open letter to stakeholders asking for views on a fundamental simplification of employment and skills services. The letter is looking at the three specific areas of outcomes, funding and structures, and ALP’s proposals address all of them.

One funding agency for employment and skills

ALP reaffirms its belief that there should be a single procurement agency for employment and skills provision. The recession has made the necessity of this even more imperative as it has become more generally recognised that equipping unemployed people with skills for a modern economy is the key to sustainable employment. It is far more effective for the client, the employer, the provider and the state if employment and skills programmes are bundled together under one funding stream as opposed to the current situation where for example we are reliant on different agencies to manage referrals of clients from one programme to another.

To secure better outcomes, ALP thinks that it is long overdue for us to have a preferred supplier system based on quality providers. The arrangements should be based on a range of rigorous assessments, based on historical evidence, which would include performance data, inspection data and a demonstration of capacity to deliver new products and programmes as they are developed. Once gained, the status should be rewarded with three or five year contracts to encourage long term investment by the provider to contribute to government’s desired outcomes.

This opportunity to maximise private sector investment has never been fully exploited because of the insecurity offered by one year contracts, with often unnecessarily insensitive and ruthless closure clauses incapable of accommodating the normal, and temporary, ups and downs of performance experienced by all providers in all industries. It is important to stress that new providers, who have the potential to contribute, should be allowed to enter the world of FE, because they often bring with them innovative approaches.

With the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills set to publish a ‘skills activism’ white paper in the autumn, a debate is now taking place on what form a demand-led skills strategy should take. ALP’s submission shows how demand-led can play a critical part in ensuring success if it is linked into a preferred supplier regime. Preferred suppliers should be allowed to package an appropriate portfolio of government funded employment and skills provision to respond to the actual, real time demand – which may differ from place to place – from employers and individuals.

Instead of the current arrangements, which restrict providers to micromanaged and pre-determined volumes within each programme strand, providers should be able to negotiate a single maximum contract value based on sensible indicative volumes for each product. Providers should be free to take their portfolio of products to market and deliver the mix demanded at that time by employers and individuals without exceeding the contract limit. This would maximise the achievement of a genuine demand led element within the envelope of pre-determined government priorities. We also believe that this system could respond well to the Commission’s desire to see a ‘whole workforce development’ approach being developed under simplified structures.

Measuring the impact realistically

It is encouraging that the UKCES has picked up the baton with regard to identifying outcomes which are meaningful to our customers while satisfying the need for accountability. There is increasing acknowledgement that simply counting qualifications as a proxy for skill development is too crude and highly flawed, yet we persevere with this suspect and imperfect approach. Instead we should be setting up a long term evaluation system which seeks to identify the impact on productivity, business success, and indeed personal development, of government investment in skills development.

The shadow arrangements for replacing the LSC with a new set of agencies start this October when we are expecting to find out what exactly the Government means by skills activism within a very challenging fiscal environment. Then of course we have an election on the horizon with a resurgent opposition having very different ideas on reforming the system. The UKCES has therefore a vital non-partisan role in forging its own set of proposals which remain focused on simplifying arrangements which are in the best interests of employers and learners. ALP supports the Commission’s approach and looks forward to participating fully in the continuing debate on the best way ahead.

Graham Hoyle OBE is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers

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