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FE news Exclusive: Graham Hoyle, Chief Executive of the ALP, on recent developments in FE and tr

Gordon Brown’s first thirty days as Prime Minister has certainly given members of the Association of Learning Providers food for thought.

The new era started of course with the Whitehall restructuring which saw the old DfES split into DCSF and DIUS. Our members were fairly relaxed about this because DIUS offers a dedicated department responsible for employer-facing skills provision. There remains concern about the likely repositioning of the successful Entry to Employment programme within the DCSF and ALP will wish to ensure that this programme does not suffer because of the change.

One of the first tasks of John Denham’s new DIUS was to publish the Leitch Implementation Plan and FE News reported on the initial disappointment of our members that the Government had rejected Lord Leitch’s recommendation that a fully demand-led system for adult skills funding should be introduced by 2010. However, we look forward to constructive dialogue with ministers over the next few months on how we make sure that Train to Gain and the new Skills Accounts are a success.

Another interesting aspect of the change in Whitehall on 28 June was that the DWP was left untouched. ALP has long pressed for closer links between the department’s job placement programmes under Jobcentre Plus and the skills programmes of the LSC to help create more sustainable employment for JCP clients. Some progress on this has been made as a result of our lobbying and the Leitch recommendations, yet the new Commission for Employment and Skills will need to look at the issue in due course.

The encouraging news is that in its recently published green paper, the DWP has signalled its intention that the “work first” principle behind previous welfare to work programmes is to be abandoned. From now on, programmes will recognise that unemployed individuals with few or no skills will need better up-front support through training.

There has been much speculation in the press that the change of incumbent at Downing Street will lead to a rolling back of private sector involvement in the delivery of public services and not surprisingly attention has focused on the DWP as a possible starting-point for any policy reversal. The Secretary of State, Peter Hain, has said that he is minded to reject some of the more contentious aspects of the Freud report. For example, we are unlikely to see a private provider be a prime contractor for a whole region, which is actually a decision that is likely to be welcomed by the great majority of ALP members.

Further consultation will take place on the prime contractor model and the role of private providers in general and Mr Hain has indicated that he has an open mind on the issue. Certainly, ministers must not lose the prize of innovative approaches that independent providers frequently bring to welfare to work. I have already had a very encouraging conversation with the employment minister, Caroline Flint, and discussions on the way forward will continue into the autumn.

Responsibility for the 14-19 curriculum resides with DCSF which presents two challenges for us to monitor carefully in the coming months. Firstly, ministers are committed to devolving responsibilities for learning to the local authorities. In terms of local accountability, there is much to be said for this, but in relation to the national skills strategy, it is desirable to see a high level of consistency in standards of delivery.

A critical example of this is the rolling out of the new Information, Advice and Guidance system for young people in England under the “Youth Matters” agenda. With Connexions now only a brand rather than a full-blown service, we are concerned that not all young people will receive unbiased advice in terms of the vocational and work-based learning opportunities available in their areas when places have to be filled in sixth form and FE colleges. A House of Lords committee report on Apprenticeships recently identified this as a major issue to overcome if the Government target of 500,000 apprenticeship places by 2020 is to be met.

The second challenge for the DCSF and stakeholders is making sure the new specialised diplomas contain a work-based element. Assurances have been given that the QCA will only approve frameworks that incorporate such an element, but we have to see how they are actually introduced in schools and colleges around the country before our concerns are put to rest. We want to see more evidence as well of work-based learning providers being invited to participate in the local partnerships which will be responsible for the roll-out of the diplomas.

The ALP autumn conference on 30-31 October at Newbury racecourse promises to be an excellent opportunity to take stock of where policy is headed under all of our new ministers. These are interesting times for everyone involved in skills and employment.

Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers (www.learningproviders.org.uk)

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