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Brave new moves to match demand

Tony Blair recently told his supporters that there should be "no hang-ups" about partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors. The Prime Minister's comments could be no better directed than at the further education and training sector, and the contribution to be made by members of the Association of Learning Providers (ALP), whose work is highlighted in this TES special report.

The ALP's membership, a mixture of commercial training firms, not-for-profit organisations, charities and colleges delivering work-based learning, will always welcome a firm lead from the top. But this isn't about independent providers rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of getting a bigger slice of the action - an outcome that is far from guaranteed. This is about the whole question of producing better value in the delivery of the Government's skills strategy in a way that means the real winners are Britain's employers and learners.

A significant benefit of the partnerships in education and training is the innovative and flexible approach that independent providers can introduce to new programmes. I hear exciting examples every day that concern ALP members who are really making a difference - for example, helping the local education authority in Barnsley to improve the basic skills of classroom assistants under the Skills for Life programme so that schools can move them on to a higher grade.

Another key message is that our members' portfolio of services is becoming broader. Long gone are the days when most training providers were simply delivering apprenticeships. The product range covers vocational qualifications across all sectors - basic skills for adults, learndirect courses, employment entry programmes and other business support services.

This means we are working with many government departments and agencies. At the same time, many members are not simply reliant on the Government as their principal customer. As employer engagement lies at the heart of what we do, we deliver learning for many businesses on a purely commercial basis. Lessons we learn from these contracts are benefiting the programmes that we are running in partnership with the public and voluntary sectors.

Despite a tighter fiscal climate, the outlook for independent providers is promising. Yet it can be argued that the Government's skills strategy is at a crossroads. After 12 months of excellent progress, most signs point in the right direction - but unless a disciplined focus is maintained, it could end up in a cul-de-sac.

For independent learning providers, the strategy's blueprint is the most encouraging one they have seen for years. The emphasis on matching the supplier market to employer and learner demand seems to be backed by firm ministerial commitment.

The ALP believes that the most efficient way to respond to that demand is to open up the learning market and give independent providers access to learning provision that is currently closed to them. This is also about switching funding to programmes - such as apprenticeships for the over-19s - when employers want to offer more places on them.

The policy-makers and funding agencies must show greater flexibility if the skills strategy is to make a sustainable impact on the economy. And choosing providers must be based on quality - not the retention of the status quo.

Graham Hoyle is the chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers:

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