Boosting skills begins with the teachers

In spite of the extensive interest generated by the Foster report, the key task of developing a highly skilled workforce in further education has not received the attention it deserves.

In calling for a targeted workforce development plan in the next 12 months, it might on first reading be assumed Sir Andrew was ignoring many of the advances made within the context of the Success for All policy initiative.

On closer scrutiny, however, it is clear his report is not overtly critical of the efforts made to increase the skills of the FE workforce since 2001, when new lecturers were first required to hold teaching qualifications. He simply believes the sector can, and must, do better.

This is crucial in light of the Chancellor's pre-budget speech and Lord Leitch's current review of skills. If improving the nation's skills base is already a key economic challenge, then improving the workforce delivering that skills base has to be the first step.

A recent study by Lifelong Learning UK, the Sector Skills Council responsible for FE and other post-16 learning, shows that we are on course to achieve the Success for All government target for training most, and eventually all, teachers. Providing that the 20,000 staff who began teacher-training courses two years ago gain qualifications, 95 per cent of full-time and 62 per cent of part-time lecturers are likely to be qualified teachers by next year, slightly more than the target set three years ago.

So where do we go from here? The drive towards a more professionalised college workforce began with the standards for teaching and supporting learning produced by the Further Education National Training Organisation.

From September 2007, new and existing staff will be able to work towards the status of teachers qualified in learning and skills. In so doing a level playing field will be created between the school and post-school sectors that should benefit learners as well as teachers, trainers and tutors. Also in place are occupational standards for managers and learning support staff.

But this is not sufficient on its own. The Foster report is calling for a national workforce development plan that does not just include teachers, but extends across all the estimated quarter of a million people employed in FE. Naturally the plan must also consider the needs of staff working across the wider learning and skills sector.

This is why Lifelong Learning UK was developed as the skills council for this sector, led by colleges, libraries, universities, community providers and private training providers. We are now building on the standards already developed to shape an integrated standards-based framework of qualifications for teachers, trainers and tutors. Training towards these standards will be tailored to the needs of individual staff and will enable them to move jobs and build careers, not just in colleges, but also among providers of work-based, adult and community learning.

The FE sector has a heavy dependence on staff in their mid-forties and older, as shown in LLUK's recent snapshot. Nearly half (44 per cent) of colleges' employees are aged 45 and above, while two in five are aged over 50. Only one in five is under 35. These figures alone should demonstrate the necessity not just to train more people to teach and take up other positions in FE, but also the need to make the sector more attractive for potential employees and to increase the pathways to working in the post-16 sector. This must be addressed within the national workforce development plan.

This is doubly important in light of the need to increase dramatically the percentage of the population with skills at level 3 and above. With minds already focused on the 2012 Olympics, and the skills required to build and supply the infrastructure that will make the event a success, colleges and other learning providers know that their training programmes will be in heavy demand from employers at large.

In the longer term, Lord Leitch has begun to outline the scale of the challenge facing the country in his interim report, published this month as part of the pre-budget report.

By linking training and development of college staff, and those delivering learning in other settings, to the wider need for skills, we can see clearly the contribution colleges make to the economy as a whole. We, as the skills council for the lifelong learning sector, can then work with the Government, funders and others to produce a robust plan for workforce development than can meet the challenges - and the growth - of the next decade.

David Hunter is chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK

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