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Employer tie-in brings colleges a Pounds 1m windfall

Skillseekers has proved a hit in Scotland with the number of vocational qualifications doubling, reports Neil Munro

Fife's four further education colleges had a Pounds 1 million windfall in the last financial year from the unique integrated system for delivering Skillseekers operated by the FAST-TRAC division of Fife Enterprise.

School-leavers can use their Skillseeker cards to buy non-advanced FE from a college as well as an employer. The colleges are on a performance-driven regime and as more trainees are recruited, retained and qualified income rises.

The colleges - Fife, Glenrothes, Lauder and Elmwood - received Pounds 2.4 million in Scottish Office grant for non-advanced FE in 1997-98. This money was transferred to FAST-TRAC to form a training budget along with Fife Enterprise's own funding. Depending on their training record, the cash is fed back into the colleges which last year received Pounds 3.5 million.

Skillseekers are expected to achieve a minimum of 12 National Certificate modules, which attracts Pounds 1,200 per trainee. An additional four or more units from the menu of Scottish Vocational Qualifications brings in another Pounds 900.

Extra "progression payments" are linked to the number of Skillseekers switching to employer-based training and the levels of SVQ they are following.

Ian McLachlan, director of company development at Fife Enterprise, says:

"The main objective of this is that it should be employer and employment led. The aim is closer links between non-advanced further education and employer-based training."

The number of young people pursuing a non-advanced course in Fife colleges has more than doubled since 1995 when FAST-TRAC was launched from 586, below the Scottish average, to 1,300, which is above the average. The new funding incentives are intended to move these Skillseekers into employment. The aim is to have a quarter of college leavers joining the Skillseekers employer route and progressing to higher levels of qualification, against the current figure of a fifth.

Fife Enterprise and the colleges also plan to articulate National Certificate programmes with SVQs. Mr McLachlan believes there is too much duplication and repetition between the two awards, and the colleges are now working with the enterprise company to improve integration.

Four college co-ordinators have been appointed to help with this task along with nine FAST-TRAC training executives who also have responsibility for the employer-based Skillseeker training. The idea is that colleges are made more aware of employers' needs and run courses relevant to the local labour market.

Overall in the year to March, 1,300 Fife employers trained 2,400 local Skillseekers. This represents 20 per cent of employers, double the national average, and 27 per cent of all 16 and 17-year-olds, compared with 23 per cent across Scotland.

The FAST-TRAC approach involves the local enterprise company contracting directly with employers to train school-leavers, replacing 51 managing agents who arranged training before the project started. Employers can use approved providers of their choice or do their own training.

"We are convinced that by avoiding the overhead costs of managing agents, more funding can be moved to employers and the actual delivery of training," Mr McLachlan said.

Janet Lowe, principal of Lauder College, welcomes the close links that FAST-TRAC has forged between the colleges, employers and the enterprise company.

Ms Lowe also believes the project has encouraged employers to take training more seriously. This is borne out by the national Skillseekers evaluation which found that two-thirds of the Fife employers involved reported that participation had encouraged them to spend twice as much more time and money on staff development throughout their companies as the Scottish average.

The study also reveals that Fife's approach to Skillseekers came out top of the Scottish Enterprise network in the percentage of trainees who were satisfied with the programme and who agreed that Skillseekers provided a real job with training. Fife employers were placed second in the proportion who spent more time andor money on training and who created additional jobs as a result.

Brian Wilson, the previous Education Minister, praised the record of FAST-TRAC in boosting the number of school-leavers going on to college and the closer links with employers. The Scottish Office intends to hold consultations on whether the Fife approach should be extended to the rest of the country.

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