From education to employment

Contestability Will Benefit the Skills Agenda

The next twelve months for independent learning providers look very promising in terms of having a major role in delivering the Government’s skills strategy, writes Graham Hoyle, Chief Executive of the Association of Learning Providers (ALP).

Following two white papers in three years, the strategy is still being shaped with the recent publication of the Foster review of Further Education and next year’s Treasury commissioned review of the economy’s future skills needs by Lord Leitch. As a cornerstone of the strategy, April will see the start of “Train to Gain”, the new national employer training programme and ALP members are looking forward to providing a high quality workforce development service to businesses in their areas.

These encouraging developments will build on substantial progress made during the past year. “Train to Gain” will be based on the highly successful Employer Training Pilots (ETPs) where 69% of delivery was undertaken by independent, often specialist, providers who understood the needs of the small and medium sized enterprises being targeted.

Choice and Contestability

ALP lobbied hard for the national programme to follow the “choice and contestability” principles that the Government has been seeking to introduce across the delivery of a whole range of public services. It was our view that a critical success factor behind the ETP’s effectiveness was the employer’s ability to exercise a genuine choice on the type of provider delivering the training. Ministers too were in agreement about this and Foster recommended that local Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs) should be “looking for ways of opening the market up where this will improve choice”.

The Foster review also endorsed that the view that employers and individual learners would benefit if there was an “increased degree” of contestability across all of the LSC’s programmes. Our response has been to urge the LSC to keep the foot on the accelerator while safeguarding the improvements in the quality of provision that we have seen from FE colleges and independent providers since the “Success for All” initiative was introduced three years ago.

In its input to the review, ALP argued that learners would additionally benefit if we recognised the gains from existing examples of excellent collaboration between colleges and independent providers. It is encouraging that Foster wants to see more of this collaboration at a local level and in our view, the LSC should be reviewing its funding arrangements to facilitate it.

Regional Agenda

The growing regional agenda will be another important factor in advancing the skills strategy in 2006. As the regional skills partnerships bed down, it should be remembered that ALP was calling for a closer working partnership between the LSC and Jobcentre Plus almost from the moment that the latter was launched in 2002 under the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The outcome of Jobcentre Plus’s own organisational reforms and the make-up of its future provision will hopefully have a positive impact on the effectiveness of the regional partnerships. Responsibility for the agency’s basic skills and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision is being transferred to the LSC. We welcome this move and we feel strongly that Jobcentre Plus clients, especially those with low skill levels, should continue to access, where needed, training and qualifications likely to increase their chances of holding down a job.

Skills are undoubtedly high on the Government’s agenda and the Leitch review will keep the subject in the spotlight. Challenges undoubtedly remain; for example, ensuring that the impact of Train to Gain is not blunted by an over-bureaucratic brokerage system. The recent Social Exclusion Unit report on young adults has also warned of the consequences if training provision is inadequate for those aged over 19. Nevertheless the emergence of a contestable supply market will help provide the post-16 education and training sector, in Sir Andrew Foster’s words, with “a core focus on skills and employability”.

Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers

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