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Let's hear more about learning

Neil Munro talks to Holyrood's watchdog about his plans to get the skills agenda on to the front page

JOHN SWINNEY is quietly content that the work of his parliamentary committee has been given reasonable media coverage - in the business pages.

Yet, although the unanimous report from the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee of MSPs may have considerable implications for vocational education and training, the Parliament's press office directed its contents only to business and political correspondents.

Mr Swinney, the SNP's deputy leader, is conscious of this. "We are anxious not to be seen as an economic development and business committee and to do full justice to our remit," he says. None the less the only firm topics for future reviews are tourism and petrol pricing.

Given the recent history of further education, observers will note wryly that the first parliamentary committee to come to grips with the sector has been the audit committee rather than the lifelong learning committee.

But, away from the rough and tumble of the Parliament's chamber, the enterprise and lifelong learning committee has been holding a series of thorough hearings since September which could have a significant impact on colleges. The inquiry has focused on the local delivery of both economic development and post-school vocational education, concentrating on the perspective of the consumer and tackling "hybrid issues".

The committee published its interim findings just before Christmas and the message for both aspects of its remit was the same - too much "confusion, overlap and duplication" in the provision of these services. The field is "congested" with local enterprise companies (LECs), FE colleges, local authorities, chambers of commerce, enterprise trusts, training providers, careers compaies and any number of ad hoc agencies.

"What struck me in all of the evidence presented to the committee was the lack of cohesion in these areas," Mr Swinney told The TES Scotland. A clear example of the difficulties was provided by Inverclyde Council which wants to develop an integrated advice and guidance service. This involves collaboration between the council's own economic development service, Renfrewshire Enterprise, James Watt College, Inverclyde Regeneration Partnership, the Employment Service, the local Careers Partnership, Renfrewshire Education Business Partnership, Inverclyde Community Development Trust and Inverclyde Training and Employment Initiative.

Rationalisation is clearly in the air and Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, hinted as much when he told a conference of LEC leaders last October that they "must co-operate as never before".

Mr Swinney believes there is a need for an economic development strategy and a lifelong learning strategy covering the whole of Scotland. This is not the first time such a call has been made, nor probably will it be the last.

Strategies have been outlined by the Scottish skills forum which reported under the previous Conservative Government, by the previous Scottish Office in its separate proposals on lifelong learning and "skills for Scotland", and by Scottish Enterprise in its blueprint entitled Know-how: achieving prosperity through learning.

Mr Swinney is unimpressed. "These sound not so much a national strategy, more a series of national action plans," he comments. "What we need to have is each of the players, whether they be in business or training, agreeing on how to achieve shared goals at a national level. This would bring more rationality to the delivery of services at the local level."

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