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Firms seek control of workplace training

New industry skills bodies want to oversee spending on work-based learning. Neil Merrick reports.

EMPLOYERS say they, not the Learning and Skills Council, should control spending on training in the workplace Firms want money for work-based learning channelled through new "sector skills councils" - employer bodies that will address training needs in each industrial sector.

The Government is considering the idea of transferring control of work-based spending seriously, because it wants to give firms more of a say over how their workers are trained.

Ivan Lewis, adult skills minister, has told leaders of the fledgling sector skills councils that a review of funding for all adult learning may give them the power to purchase training from colleges and private firms.

Currently, local learning and skills councils buy work-based training but employers claim that they could spend the money more effectively.

"Employers want to know why they can't have the money that's going to LSCs," said Jack Matthews, director of operations at the Sector Skills Development Agency, the umbrella body for the new sector skills council.

Speaking at a British Council conference on international skills partnerships in London last week, he said ministers had "a very open ear" to the idea of giving SSCs a funding role.

"The Government wants to listen to what employers are saying and SSCs will have the clout to make the Government hear."

Mr Lewis had suggested SSCs might be put in charge of funding at a private meeting, held the day before, with chairs and chief executives of the first five SSCs. The result of the funding review should be revealed in June, when the Government is due to unveil its national skills strategy.

But it was too early to assume that LSCs would lose their funding powers, he stressed.

Mr Lewis later told The TES he was also looking at a number of options for giving individuals more opportunity to buy learning, including setting up a successor to the discredited individual learning accounts scheme. "We will look at ensuring that we spend money in a way that stimulates demand to maximum effect," he said. "Routing money through SSCs to buy high-quality provision is one option we will consider."

SSCs are steadily replacing national training organisations, which are responsible for tackling skill shortages and setting occupational standards but do not fund training. Each covers a wider range of occupations than the training organisations did but the bureaucratic process of setting them up means the Government is still some way from its target figure of about 25 SSCs.

Giving SSCs a funding role could greatly increase their profile and generate more interest in them among employers.

John Ramsay, chief executive of Cogent, the SSC for the oil, gas and petro-chemicals industries, said: "There is a need to look at some of the funding mechanisms if we are going to have the employer input that's needed."

By involving SSCs, which are national bodies, the Government would also get around the problem that work-based learning in different areas is funded by different organisations. "It's more appropriate to look at these issues on a national basis that on a region-by-region basis," said Mr Lewis.

The skills strategy, Mr Lewis told last week's conference, must add value and respond to needs of those on the ground: "A national strategy must get rid of the barriers and bureaucracy that regional players tell us get in the way of delivering the skills agenda," he said.

Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, said the concept of allowing SSCs to fund training seemed a sound one as they would better understand employer needs.

"The key thing is that whoever administers the money contracts with organisations that have the capacity to deliver," he said.

"LSCs were supposedly set up with a massive employer voice but my understanding is that hasn't happened."

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