Cheers, and let's do even more

Frances O'Grady deputy general secretary of the TUC

Champagne corks would pop in boardrooms up and down Britain if private companies could get customer satisfaction rates as high as those for many public services. Yet the Government seems remarkably coy about celebrating the latest National Employer Skills Survey results, which show nine of every 10 employers are satisfied with training by FE colleges.

Labour promised to transform FE, narrow the funding chasm between FE and HE and develop a sense of pride.

The Government deserves credit for increasing investment, but more public recognition of the huge contribution FE makes to our economic performance and delivery of social justice would be welcome.

Through my work on the trades union learning agenda, I've had significant contact with colleges and I am increasingly impressed by the commitment of staff. There is still scope to improve quality, reach and responsiveness, not least by boosting the morale, skills and rewards of the FE workforce.

Publication of the FE Bill is to be followed swiftly by the final report from the Leitch Review of Skills, setting out a way of increasing the level of ambition for UK skills over the next 15 years.

The time for talk and targets is coming to an end. What we need now is action and results. FE could play a much greater role if some simple measures were introduced.

The Government could introduce a universal right to paid time off work to undertake training. Every worker should at least have the right to secure a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification in paid work time.

Employers should welcome an improvement in training standards, including through extending binding agreements on licences to practice.

Take training in the security industry, which is increasingly under the spotlight. The current approach places the responsibility on the individual, leaving 30 per cent of the half a million strong workforce - and the public they serve - unprotected.

Extending requirements on companies to hold licences to practice would have the advantage of creating a level playing field and dramatically improving the skills, reputation and service quality of industries.

Unions must be allowed to play their part. The launch of the TUC's Unionlearn programme this year is one of the most exciting developments in trade unionism in a generation. With 15,000 trained and accredited union learning reps to help, thousands of workers are already accessing training opportunities in partnership with FE, many for the first time. But unions could be helped to make an even bigger contribution if given more levers to seek training agreements with employers.

next year is likely to see a tight comprehensive spending review, posing fundamental questions about how to raise demand and who should pay how much of what must become a significantly bigger UK learning and skills bill, if Leitch's ambition is to be met.

As a country, we have to transform attitudes towards FE and vocational education, and increase employers' contribution to it.

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