From education to employment

ALP Conference Sees Minister Highlight Yawning Skills Divide

One of the few government minister to remain in his position following the recent Labour reshuffle, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Bill Rammell MP, opened his speech with an acknowledgment of success ““ a concept familiar to anybody conscious of our present administration.

Entitled “Further Education ““ Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances”, the right hon. MP boldly claimed at the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) Conference: “I”ve come to set out the government’s view to the challenges we all face. There is a common ground though, and I hoped it was recognised we engaged with everyone in the sector.”

He continued: “We”ve come forward with the vision for the Further Education White Paper,” in a speech designed primarily to conform than to revolutionise. He carried on by starting with the positives: “Let’s start with the successes: apprenticeship targets have been met and the current completion rate is 48%. This is a significant achievement, due to the hard work of the ALP and its many partners. So congratulations.”

A Fleeting Positive?

However, this congratulatory backslapping was a fleeting presence. Pressing on with the issue in hand, he noted: “We are facing significant skills challenges. The number of young people staying on in education remains scandalously low.” Pinpointing a more business orientated model of learner provision, Mr Rammell continued: “The economy demands more innovation, dynamism and flexibility.”

In keeping with the growing calls from industry to make education more in tune with the increasingly globalised skills economy, he said: “Our productivity lags behind our competitors in Europe,” in regard to Germany and France. “Raising our productivity levels remains the only priority for us”. As for the forthcoming Leitch review, Mr. Rammell said: “The Leitch analysis is that we still don”t have the skills level to meet this global marketplace.” Referencing the emerging Chinese economy that many predict will become the world’s largest in a matter of years, he expressed his concern and shock at their sense of commitment: “We risk being blown away by the competition.”

“We must address the skills development issues,” came an almost exasperated plea from the passionate and articulated Minister. Responsible for the review and reform of Further Education, he pondered briefly on a suitable answer befitting any self-respecting advocate of government: that sometimes, the solution is already there. “We now have in place the necessary infrastructure to develop. There are 25 Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) and these are vital.” And what do we do with them? “We need to increase investment in skills development and learning.” Yet, conversely: “Public funding will never be enough. There has been a cultural shift between public and private funding.”

Building on Sand?

So the way forward is clear, then. Increase the level of investment with the knowledge that it will never satiate the market. Yet although his position gives him responsibility for funding, the broader remit of his role allows him sufficient clearance to make all of Further Education coherent. And in this he was clear: “We want to open up the market to allow new providers to enter, in order to expand the provision.” He also touched on increased action to eliminate the poor provision citing: “12% to 15% is barely satisfactory. This is simply not good enough.”

Falling straight back, however, to a more common ground of management speak, he proclaimed: “We need to develop a new national strategy.” His list of wants could stretch even our beloved St. Nick, reeling off point after point, perhaps in a bid to infuse the audience for his speech with the requisite enthusiasm. “We want a reform of work-based learning programmes. We want to strengthen apprenticeships. We want to do more around gender segregation.”

He concluded with the obvious: “In conclusion, we have an enormous agenda with many challenges. Further Education should take its rightful place in public esteem”. And any sector bias? “Further Education is more life transformational than schools.” In a bid to the many ALP partners gathered, his speech was indeed energetic, passionate and full of vigour. Yet his evident dynamism perhaps overshadowed the fine work FE providers already accomplish, without setting out a definitive guideline.

As the right hon. MP concluded, in true Hollywood glory: “We can succeed.”

Vijay Pattni

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