THERE was universal support this week for the Government's skills White Paper which ministers said reflected its mission for both social justice and an economically productive society.
Industrialists, trade unionists, college leaders, training providers and academics lined up to laud the strategy, which will offer joined-up government for the first time in the attempt to eliminate the "deep-rooted and pervasive" skills gap.
As FE Focus exclusively revealed last week, there will be free learning for any adult aiming to achieve a level 2 qualification (five good GCSEs or their equivalent).
But the White Paper, 21st Century skills: Realising our potential, says the potential numbers will be huge. To test demand, the entitlement will be introduced in part next year, and extended nationally from 2005.
There will be increased support for adults to gain technical and craft qualifications at level 3 (two A-levels or equivalent) but only where there are skills shortages in either a sector or region. A means-tested adult learning grant of pound;30 a week will be piloted from September. The age limit for Modern Apprentices will go, information and communications technology will become the third essential "skill for life" alongside literacy and numeracy, and leisure courses will be safeguarded. Learners studying for pleasure may, however, have to pay more.
Chancellor Gordon Brown and a posse of ministers launched the White Paper over a scrambled eggs and smoked salmon breakfast at Westminster Kingsway college. Mr Brown said: "Skills are Britain's Achilles' heel, particularly at the intermediate level. There is no greater economic issue to which we have to devote our attention."
Ivan Lewis, minister for adult skills and vocational education, told FE Focus that the concept of a job for life was dead. "Our responsibility is to replace that with one of employability for life so that we can help people to retrain and to upskill," he said. "Overall, we want a fair and successful society. There is nothing more powerful than giving someone a chance who for 30 years has been unable to read or write. It is what I call the dignity of self-improvement."
Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, praised the Government for putting "fresh impetus" behind the drive for better workforce skills. In particular, he said it was right to recognise the role of employers and give them a greater say in the content and delivery of training programmes. He added that lecturers needed to understand that profit was not a dirty word.
Manufacturing sector skills chief Michael Sanderson said the Government should be congratulated on tackling issues which had worried employers for a long time.
"Particularly to be supported is the emphasis on employer and trade union involvement, a much better approach to adult funding and a greater degree of flexibility and unitisation of our vocational qualifications framework."
The Association for Colleges was delighted that there had been a shift of public policy, by recognising the "entitlement" principle and giving adults the right to free tuition. Equally welcome was the introduction of grants for adult learners which it said would make a huge difference to poorer students. "Students have been gobsmacked and delighted by this," said David Gibson, the AoC's chief executive.
The Learning and Skills Council, which will take the lead in unifying the skills delivery partners, is to review adult education and training to ensure the needs of employers and communities are met.
Bryan Sanderson, chairman of the LSC, said: "We will ensure that training is relevant, affordable and aligned to employers' needs, and that present and future skills gaps are recognised and met. The future economic prosperity of our nation depends on getting this right."
Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, said the White Paper contained two important proposals: "First, a universal entitlement to level 2 qualifications which should redress disadvantages for those who didn't get the education they deserved at school; second, reforms of qualifications which at last offer the potential for flexible, credit-based systems that can meet the needs of the economy."
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