Ministers should give them a key role in transforming workplace skills, says Graham Hoyle
To an outsider, it might seem strange that we at the Association of Learning Providers used our recent annual conference to call for members to be given a key delivery role in the Skills White Paper.
But Whitehall's lack of understanding of the nature and importance of work-based learning and who drives it meant that a timely reminder was needed. We also need a much more effective method of recognising the true outputs and success we have achieved.
"Employer engagement" has been a buzz phrase in government recently but it has always been the core activity of work-based learning providers. For many, it describes their sole activity.
Employers must be encouraged to take up programmes to boost skills. To do this, LSCs and training firms need to offer tailor-made solutions to workforce development needs. Knocking on the door simply to "sell" Modern Apprenticeships or Investors in People brings only limited success.
We also need better access to funding. Providers could deliver so much more with access to the full range of LSC funds. It looks as though we are finally seeing progress in this respect for developing the basic skills of employees. It is vital, though, that no skill development budget is closed to any provider that can deliver high-quality training.
Many employees needing help with their basic skills are adults and, with demographic changes pointing to fewer young workers over the next 20 years, encouraging lifelong learning should be a critical part of the new strategy.
They will be helped if the decision-makers throw their weight behind efforts to find ways of recognising bite-sized learning instead of preserving a system based essentially around the achievement of full and formal qualifications. The signs are hopeful that a system of learning units and credits is at last on its way.
ALP members would also like a more flexible approach to Modern Apprenticeships. Our employer customers complain about the "one size fits all" framework. The new MA task force must make it more attractive to employers. And the new Sector Skills Councils must act to shape apprenticeships.
Also the cap on MA places should be lifted so demand from employers can be met and the bar on over-19s doing MAs removed.
We wait with interest to see if it remains mandatory to do key skills, an expectation irrationally unique to the MA route.
If the Government is serious about responding to employers needs it must give them access to a diverse range of training.The principle should be established that if a quality supplier can demonstrate employers' need for their training, then LSC or Jobcentre Plus support should be considered, irrespective of the provider's size.
We are concerned at pressure by local learning and skills councils to cut the number of providers with whom they contract. ALP has no argument if this is on the grounds of poor-quality services but the non-awarding of a contract simply because a provider is small is quite different. It is difficult to see the goals of the skills strategy being met when diversity of supply is being restricted solely to make administration easier.
ALP recognises that the Government cannot transform Britain's skills on its own. There must be shared responsibility between it, employers, learning providers and employees. Union learning representatives will also have a key role` in stimulating learning demand.
Charles Clarke told the ALP conference that training providers were "at the cutting edge" in building programmes for employers. We want to be innovative in making businesses value workforce development. All we need to be more innovative is the opening up of funding to all quality providers and more consistency in the way the LSC operates.
Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers (www.learning providers.org.uk)