The government should plough more money into a local training network established in the 1960s if it is serious about plugging the skills gap currently hampering the country's economic recovery, an independent inquiry has found.
A commission led by the University of London's Institute of Education has recommended that greater funding should be handed to Group Training Associations (GTAs), a 50-year-old network of not-for-profits that has been largely overlooked in recent years. GTAs are local training centres led by businesses specialising in providing small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a highly trained workforce.
The inquiry stops short of recommending whether funding for GTAs should come from the existing FE budget or from an additional pot of money, but calls for more of the organisations to be established across the country.
Professor Lorna Unwin, who wrote the report, said the associations should be "central" to the government's plans for economic growth by helping to expand the number of apprenticeships. "The government needs to think about what works, and where good GTAs are delivering high-quality training it needs to look at how it can sustain and enhance that good work," Professor Unwin told TES.
The organisations are currently unable to apply for government funding. This led the commission to call on the government to "level the playing field" between GTAs and FE colleges, enabling them to deliver vocational qualifications outside of apprenticeships.
FE colleges can subcontract the associations to deliver vocational training, but often hold back between 15 and 40 per cent of the funds they receive from the Skills Funding Agency as a management fee. As such, subcontracting reduces the amount of money that is spent on actual training.
The Department for Education should discourage FE colleges from continuing the practice, the report added.
"The government needs to decide to what extent it should make it fairer for GTAs to draw down government money," Professor Unwin said. "It is up to the government to decide how it spends its money, but GTAs provide high-quality training that is respected by employers."
The report's findings were welcomed by former skills minister John Hayes, who pointed out that the GTAs have a "proven track record" of meeting the needs of SME apprentices.
But the study was met with caution by FE college leaders, who warned that the report overstated the funding that FE colleges receive.
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "The facts are that since 2009 colleges have only had the funds to meet specific conditions, and further projects have had to be funded by either borrowing or other resources.
"Colleges receive only about half of the SFA budget, the rest of which goes to private providers."
One of the key areas where GTAs could flourish, Professor Unwin believes, is in providing guidance to employers who are confused by the "plethora" of UK training schemes, qualifications and initiatives.
The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) backed the inquiry, describing the training associations as a unique service that supports hundreds of businesses across the country.
"(This report) will reinvigorate and redefine the GTA model some 50 years after its conception in the 1960s," said David Way, chief operating officer at the NAS. "GTAs are unique as they are not-for-profit, employer-led training providers with close ties to other SMEs and the communities in which they are based."