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Bosses urged to invest in skills

Ian Nash finds bold statements in the coming White Paper - but little new money to back them up.

In the skills White Paper to be published this month, the Government says it has been misunderstood and that critics are wrong to insist ministers set their sights only on low-level training.

"The original skills strategy was perceived as saying level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) is the only priority. That is a misreading," the draft White Paper says. "Some of our key skills gaps are at level 3 (A-level); and, for many employers and sectors, level 2 skills are not enough."

But those hoping to see increased public investment follow the argument will be disappointed. "Distinction is between where we invest public funds (at level 2 because there is where the main market failures are) and where we provide better support, while expecting learners and employers to contribute as well (level 3)."

The engine for driving an improved skills initiative will be the new National Employer Training Programme (NETP). The goal of this programme is to persuade employers to invest more in skills. There will be a free core offer of basic skills and other needs at level 2. "Beyond that, brokers will help source wider training needs."

The White Paper repeatedly asserts the Government's commitment to managing publicly funded training so that it is "flexible, responsive and high-quality", in order to meet the needs of industry and individuals.

"But we cannot pay for it all. Rates of return show that employers and learners also gain from qualifications at level 3 and above. So employers and learners will need to contribute more to costs of training. Hence decisions to raise standard fee levels in further education outside priority fee remission groups."

The White Paper adds a new phrase to the political lexicon when describing demands on employers to train staff. Neither voluntary nor statutory, there will be a new "post-voluntary" approach to skills training, the White Paper says.

"The downsides of a statutory approach to compulsion are well understood," ministers insist, "and we remain committed to working with employers, unions and learners on a shared, collective partnership agenda."

Ministers are unwavering in their determination to limit state investment in the more advanced levels of training in spite of Department for Education and Skills officials having warned them to expect "a sharp drop" in the number of adult learners due to the imposition of fees at level 3.

With less than a year until the implementation of the NETP, there is a striking lack of detail in the white paper about what will actually be involved. College leaders have expressed concern that, under the pilots, employers came to expect free training. They cannot afford this at national level. Also, big colleges such as Darlington have said pilot programmes displaced earlier fee-paying courses, creating a "double funding whammy".

An additional pound;64 million of DfES cash was found in time for last month's Learning and Skills Council college funding strategy announcement.

But it adds up at best to a one-year stay of execution for much adult education.

The white paper initiates a series of measures to promote skills training.

It promises a green paper on offender learning by the summer, now the LSC has taken charge of prison learning from the Home Office. A big shake-up is expected, with the issuing of new contracts.

Sector skills councils are expected to grow in importance, not least with a significant influence over the creation of the 12 new 16-19 skills academies. "Skills alliances", to promote greater partnership and other sources of investments, are set out in the white paper as a permanent feature.

The offer to employers includes - in addition to the NETP - a new brokerage network of agents to get the best value from colleges and other management and training providers. There will be sector skills training agreements through the SSCs, better support for higher-level skills training and a more flexible approach to "packaging" training to create qualifications employers need and which tie into the Tomlison 14-19 agenda.

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