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Call for flexible post-16 scheme

BRITAIN should follow America's example by providing training entitlements to all new entrants to the workforce, a leading employer-led body said this week.

The Americans, whose scheme is supported by recent legislation, are initially targeting unemployed people but eventually want to create a system of universal access to training.

The council of the National Training Organisations said this was a British idea - "stolen" by the Americans - but that Britain was already behind the times.

The UK's Individual Learning Accounts, still being piloted - where the individual, state and employer made an investment in training - should not be seen as a panacea, the council said. "We must be sceptical about whether or not they are a tool to engage all those excluded from learning," it said.

But a serious take-up of these accounts, backed up by low-interest or income contingent loans, could forge a new alliance between individuals, employers and training providers, says the council. "This may require the setting up of a national learning and skills bank to make it happen, perhaps by incorporating the existing Student Loans Company."

The council's discussion paper, Toward a new investment framework for skills, aims to overcome the "sterile argument" between employer voluntarism versus regulation: the old debate about whether employers voluntarily provide training or whether legislation should make them provide it andor pay for it.

"We need better regulation, not necessarily more regulation. Some industries - often because of competitive pressures - need strong regulation and a training levy because it enables them to compete better in domestic or global markets. Similarly, there are those sectors in the economy that would strongly oppose a levy, on the grounds that it might prevent them competing effectively."

The council said there was no "one-size-fits-all" training policy to increase skills investment; there had to be flexibility for employers, trainers and sectors.Without extending statutory based levies (or interfering with existing ones) investment could be increased by employers establishing better incentive and information mechanisms.

But there should be a realistic approach to companies who did not train but who poached employees from those that did, as poaching could drive up wage inflation and cause severe skills shortages. Employers should contribute to Individual Learning Accounts but should have the right to claim back training investment from someone when they left early.

Gary Hawkes, chair of the council, said he was pleased with the White Paper Learning to succeed, and was glad to be able to influence the post-16 debate.

"I have been going round further education colleges and some are excellent. But, quite frankly, some are appalling because of their lack of investment in property and equipment.

"But the funding policy seems to be more about bums on seats than education and training. In some cases, more equals worse," he said.

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