The Chancellor and the Education Secretary launch nationwide discussions on how best to encourage a culture of learning
EMPLOYERS are being urged to sign within three years a pledge to ensure all their staff obtain at least the equivalent of five good-grade GCSEs.
But as the Chancellor launched the skills pledge last week, he repeatedly refused to endorse the recommendation in the Leitch report on skills, commissioned by the Treasury, that compulsory measures should be introduced if progress is not fast enough.
Gordon Brown, with Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, urged businesses of all sizes to sign the pledge to train all staff to at least level 2, but emphasised that it was a voluntary agreement.
He said: "We've set this three-year target and it's about how we can persuade all employers to enter this partnership.
"If we are going to be a successful economy and a successful society, the aim should be to develop all of the potential of all of the people."
Liz Smith, the director of the Trades Union Congress's lifelong learning organisation Unionlearn, said: "The Government's plan for an employers'
skills pledge is a welcome move to try and bring the one-third of employers on board who have been refusing to train staff. Unions will now be monitoring progress and identifying those employers who are dragging their feet and not taking the pledge."
But Conservatives said Mr Brown was already too hard on business, which invested more than twice as much as the Government in skills. The figure includes estimates of employee time lost to training.
David Willetts, the shadow education secretary, said: "Gordon Brown expects employers to make up for the failures of Labour's education system.
Companies should expect school leavers to have the skills the Chancellor is calling for, but too many young people still lack basic numeracy and literacy."
Mr Brown was speaking at a conference hall in Westminster at the launch of the Skills Challenge, the Government's largest public consultation on skills. Nine debates on the implementation of the Leitch review recommendations will be held across the country over the next three months.
He said: "In the future, skills will be the only route to prosperity and jobs. Of 3.4 million unskilled jobs today, by 2020 we will need only 600,000. So if the UK is to continue to succeed in the new global economy we will need to be more ambitious, with more people training and employers, employees and government each meeting their responsibilities.
"This will only succeed if the British people are involved in discussing and agreeing this priority to invest in education and skills. This way we can build the consensus essential if today's working men and women are going to achieve better paid jobs and a better future for their children."
The debate that followed involved round-table discussions by about 300 people invited from business, education and the general public. They examined how skills training could better meet the needs of business, how more people could be included, how more employers could be encouraged to invest in training and how a culture of learning could be established.
A campaign to extol the benefits of learning drew the most support, with 38 per cent saying it would be their first priority in trying to ensure more people updated their skills. A majority said flexible provision that fitted with their lives was important. Fewer than one in five said direct financial incentives from government would be the way to encourage them to learn.
But many believed that for employers, it was all about the bottom line: a third said the best way of encouraging them to take up skills training would be to provide tax breaks. However, almost a quarter believed employers could be persuaded that training would improve their profits without the need for tax breaks.
The Learning and Skills Council was pleased to see support for its brokers, who link employers with suitable training providers. The pound;70 million system has drawn criticism for diverting money which might have been spent directly on training, but almost a quarter of the people believed it was the best way to make sure providers met the needs of business.
Asked how to create a culture of learning, the priorities were ensuring that training was linked to long-term career success and making it easier to get on courses.
Many of the students and workers at the debate said they had been inspired to work harder at improving their skills, and the organisers were pleased that public value of skills had seemed to increase.
Delegates were invited to text messages about what they planned to do to improve skills in the UK. Some were just cynical. "Spend my free dosh,"
said one. Another said simply: "Move abroad." Perhaps most disappointing was the promise to "work harder in collage" (sic). There is evidently still work to do.
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