From education to employment

Weve heard from Labour and the Lib Dems on their plans for FE; now its the Conservatives turn wi

The final report of the Leitch review of skills must have made uncomfortable reading for ministers. Lord Leitch warned that the UK was “on track to achieve undistinguished mediocrity” if it failed to upgrade its skills. The report’s analysis revealed that Britain will need 5 million more highly skilled workers and 3 million fewer unskilled workers by 2020. FE colleges have a vital role to play in meeting this challenge, yet numbers in FE, work-based learning and adult and community learning are all in sharp decline. To reverse this fall and so achieve world-class skills we must cut through the “Byzantine” bureaucracy that stifles the sector and prevents colleges from realising their full potential. Only then can we build a system that responds to the needs of employers and learners and ensure that more of the skills budget gets to the front line where it can make a real difference.

The Government has recently spent £32 million on a high profile advertising campaign aimed at encouraging more employers and potential learners to take up training. Barely 9,000 people have responded to the invitation at the end of the advert to call the national skills helpline, equating to £3,555 spent per call ““ hardly a satisfactory return for taxpayers money! The failure of this national campaign was sadly predictable. Glossy adverts will make little impact if people are left confused by the vast array of institutions responsible for the promotion of training; and discouraged by the government’s failure to establish a “gold standard” for vocational learning.

Take, for example, Train to Gain, the Government’s flagship work-based training programme, heavily promoted by the recent advertising campaign. Results for its first full year of operation have been extremely disappointing. Target for learner numbers have been missed in every English region, with only 15% of learners actually completing their training. Low take-up rates mean that that only £174 million of the £268 million allocated to the Train to Gain budget has actually been spent. In the next four years the budget is projected to grow to £1 billion!

In practice, Train to Gain is yet another centrally driven and bureaucratic response to Britain’s skills shortage. As one expert recently told the Education and Skills Select Committee “it is the sort of demand-led you get in your Russian supermarket, you can have anything you like as long as it is Level 2, anything as long as it is potatoes, whereas employers, Sector Skills Councils, providers, are all screaming actually “This is not what we want.”

The skills brokerage service established under the scheme to assess the training needs of businesses and determine the appropriate provider will cost £66 million between 2006 and 2008. But only 30% of learners on the scheme have actually been recruited by these brokers. The Education and Skills Select Committee concluded that it was “deeply concerned” that brokers “may succeeding only in adding an extra, unwelcome, layer of bureaucracy to the process.”

By contrast, many FE colleges have well established links with local employers. Research by the 157 Group of leading colleges shows that the vast majority of training they have conducted under the Train to Gain scheme has been generated by the colleges themselves, without the support of a broker. If we are serious about having world-class skills then we should build on the best practice that already exists by encouraging employers to invest more in training and giving colleges the freedom to respond to local demand. At present there are 17 bodies with a monitoring or regulatory role in FE. The Government’s own Foster report into FE concluded that “the world of FE college oversight is crowded” and recommended that there should be “less centralisation and moves to greater self-regulation”. In the two years since Sir Andrew Foster published his findings, all the Government has done is set up another committee under Sir George Sweeny to look at self-regulation. If we are serious about colleges managing their own affairs then many of the bodies that currently bombard colleges with paperwork should go.

Demographic change means that an important challenge we face is to up-skill and re-skill adults already in the work-force. We need easy and attractive points of access to learning to draw people back into education, some of whom may have been failed by the system the first time round. As a recent report on “What Older People learn” demonstrates, adult and community learning ““ far from the parody of exclusively recreational courses mischievously painted by ministers ““ involves many older people actively pursuing studies either directly related to their working lives or which lead to employment. It is only when we fully recognise the value of adult and community learning that we can hope to embed what Leitch describes as a “culture of learning”. It is through community action and the dedication of local colleges and businesses, rather than via central targets and glossy ad campaigns, that we can meet the skills challenge in a way and at the pace necessary for Britain to succeed.

John Hayes, Shadow Minister for Vocational Learning

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