From education to employment

Penny Wycherley, Deputy Principal of South Kent College, continues the exclusive

The Leitch Review at first sight seems to be just another in the long line of reports on the importance of education and the need to develop the UK skills base. Since the 1870s, reports, politicians and analysts have warned that the UK is falling behind in the skills race. In 1870, Forster’s Act, which is generally regarded as introducing compulsory education, was passed against a growing background of concern about Britain being overtaken by Germany in the development of skills. Now we are competing in a worldwide marketplace where we are ranked roughly in the middle of the 30 OECD countries. The Leitch Review is an ambitious set of proposals to improve our position.

The changing international economy means that, even to standstill, we have to improve our skills base. Although there has been a significant focus on developing basic skills amongst our young people and adults, there are still 5 million adults who lack functional literacy and 17 million adults who struggle with numbers. These deficiencies inhibit economic growth and the increase in productivity needed to compete with other countries. They also create a society where large numbers of people are marginalized and may operate outside the mainstream economy. Such an environment encourages instability and fear in society.

So is the Leitch Review different? It’s more positive and much more ambitious. It recommends moving the UK into the top eight in the world at each skill level by 2020. This entails a major acceleration in the improvements in basic skills and higher-level qualifications to achieve in “just over one decade an ambition that no other country has yet managed”. This change is to be demand led rather than determined centrally. It will work, or not, by channelling money and engaging with employers, perhaps ultimately even introducing a statutory entitlement to workplace training. While these aims are not significantly different in intent from previous reports they are more ambitious and more radical in their approach.

The government policy of targeting funding for adult learning which has lead to a reduction in support for the traditional adult education provision such as evening language, yoga or assertiveness has paved the way for the robust approach in the Leitch Review. The middle classes have grumbled but they have not taken to the streets in defence of evening classes pursued as part of leisure. Many of us may regret the passing of this humanistic approach; vocational education is what the nation needs. Adult learner numbers have declined nationally with the requirement for fees and qualifications. The gentle return to education for adults offered by short, often free IT courses has disappeared. Increasingly these types of courses are offered only if the prospective learner can pay all the costs. Those with poor basic skills or low level qualifications are more likely to be on low incomes and their participation in this bite sized, voluntary education is becoming increasingly problematic. The Review recognises that considerable investment will be required to reach those who are unemployed, but reserves judgement on how this might be found until the next phase of the review.

There follow two major concerns with the ambitious goals in Leitch’s Review. The first is whether employers will pledge their support in tangible ways and secondly if a statutory requirement for training would simply lead to more training for the already qualified rather than the poorly qualified. Previous such initiatives have tended to benefit those already qualified, or put another way those who have already succeeded in education are more likely to take more courses. Intermediate and high skilled employees are more likely to receive job related training.

The challenge for developing employer supported training is particularly with the low skilled, poorly paid workforce. Raising their skills means that superficially the outcome may be a request for higher pay thus raising wage costs or an even higher rate of staff turnover and any investment will be lost. Anyone who has tried to develop training in an industrialised agricultural business such as lettuce picking will recognise this challenge.

There is support for both the LSC’s Agenda for Change and the Foster Review (2005). Initiatives such as the Action for Business accreditation in the South East have increased the level of employer engagement within those colleges and most significantly have raised its profile. This in its turn will lead to further growth. The processes examined in the assessment are those used in the private sector. The embedding of customer relationship management systems in colleges will ensure a more pro-active relationship with employers with a service approach; this will encourage employers to see such training as professional and therefore likely to be of benefit to their business. The introduction of a national standard of appropriate quality will spread this good practice and help to mitigate the impact of the increase in fees for adults by persuading employers of the return on investment of training.

The need to target resources, which is an increasingly important part of government and therefore the LSC’s policy for education, is emphasised in the Review. The agreement of the desired skills profile in 2020 to deliver the improvement in the UK’s global economic position is part of the next phase of the Review. The current focus on areas such as construction, care and advanced engineering has led colleges to move funding from lower priority areas for adult learning. This has not had a major impact so far on the provision for young people. An example is the burgeoning hairdressing and beauty courses that have attracted young people, primarily females, into college and have been welcomed as supporting the increased proportion of young people in education. The Leitch Review may change this.

An ambitious set of proposals, carefully thought out and idealistic in its view of employers pledging to support training, the Leitch Review is to be welcomed. It promotes the desirability of building on existing structures and the need to take hard decisions. There is recognition of the distance that has been travelled in the last few years in improving education and training.

The target of being in the top eight OECD countries may be over ambitious but in the words of the old cliché: Nothing ventured: nothing gained.

Penny Wycherley, Deputy Principal, South Kent College.

Related FE News articles:

Leitch Report “Kicked Into Long Grass” ““ 17/01/07

ALI Leaves Legacy “Of Success” ““ 16/01/07

FE System “Needs More” – 15/01/07

FE Stats Published ““ 13/12/06

Adult Learning Inspectorate Publishes Final Report ““ 12/12/06

“It Is An Enormous Opportunity ““ 06/12/06

“It Is A Radical View” ““ 06/12/06

Breaking News ““ Lord Leitch’s Final Report Published ““ 05/12/06

Tomorrow: FE News exclusive with Ioan Morgan, Chair of the 157 Group, on his plans for the future of FE.

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