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Anchors aweigh on lifelong flagship

Some of us were disappointed that the first round of trail-blazer sector skills councils announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown in April 2002 missed out lifelong learning.

However, since then, universities, colleges and employer representatives across the UK have formed an alliance, supported by the trade unions, to work on the next submission. We were nearly there with this simple idea, when along came another alliance led by three national training organisations - Fento, Paulo and the information services NTO.

Encouraged by the Sector Skills Development Agency and the Department for Education and Skills, they too wanted to be part of the party and we, as employers, were persuaded by several government departments to try to work together on all education and training delivery post-16.

We now find ourselves in with the deadline of April 2004 fast approaching, having lost two years trying to satisfy different interests, some of which seem to have a loose association with the role of employer.

Frustration is beginning to show with letters to the minister, to the department and to newspapers. Crucially, and by definition, SSCs have to be employer-led. They must work with trade unions and professional bodies to identify the skills and productivity needs of their sectors and galvanise action on priorities.

We need to set up a board of key employers to represent their interests across four nations. College corporations will need to be clear that their interests are being taken into account along with others from other employer groups. They and trade unions will need to decide who can best represent their interests.

The new SSC will also need to work in partnership with other agencies and bodies - in England the Learning and Skills Council, the 47 local LSCs, the inspectorates. The other nations will have their own relationships to foster. All these bodies have a legitimate role as advisers but not at the top table. To get this show back on the road, it should root itself in the basic premise that while everyone may want a say in what we do, some will have to settle for a back seat.

No one wants to say that we have lost our way, but it is clear that there have been a few detours or dead ends. Meanwhile, the staff of the further education NTO continue to be loyal and energetic. We could learn from them.

When college corporations sign up and hand over annual subscriptions to the new organisation, as they almost universally do for Fento, they will want some return on their investment. Other employers will want the same.

There are developments in and for colleges which will be held back if we do not have an effective sector skills council. Initial teacher training needs standards that can be applied now and and in the future. Appropriate standards must underpin the Centre for Excellence in Leadership. The sector needs consistent standards for teaching and training across all post-16 provision and these should correspond with those laid down for schools and by the Teacher Training Agency for 14 to 19-year-olds.

Modernisation of our workforce, while linked to and dependant on proper pay structures and rates, does not stop there. We have had, over the past few years, a determined effort by colleges - for 14 to 19, adult and work-based students - to raise standards to meet the increasing demands of learners and employers.

The standards already developed by Fento have been the cornerstone of this drive towards workforce development. These need to be part of the equation in the detailed proposal to be submitted to the SSDA and investment will be needed to ensure full coverage and take-up, even within colleges.

We will look to this lifelong learning sector skills council to be a flagship. It is inconceivable that ambitions for our sector, as employers, are not at the forefront of these developments. It is vital for the reputation of our employees, in their role as providers for four million learners, that we get our act together. Without an effective and well-planned SSC we have a lot to lose.

Sue Dutton is the deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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