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Let's open up the learning market

Nobody who heard Ivan Lewis's support for the development of vocational skills when the minister recently gave evidence to the education select committee will doubt the sincerity of the Government's aim to promote work-based learning as a means of driving up productivity levels.

In recent years, there has been a growing realisation that the key to a skilled economy lies in the engagement of employers in skills development. But a potential barrier is in employers' confidence in the supply side of the learning market to meet their needs.

Training providers must engage employers effectively to identify and respond to their needs. It is on this agenda that work-based learning providers have most to offer, yet they feel they are unnecessarily restricted in their possible contribution.

They are frustrated and want to see the learning market opened up. Members of the Association of Learning Providers need encouragement on this issue from lifelong learning minister Alan Johnson and the Learning and Skills Council chief Mark Haysom when they address our annual conference next week.

So, what do we mean by opening up the market? Let's start with the customer, the local employer looking for a learning provider that can offer a training solution tailor-made for the firm's needs and all levels of the workforce.

Much of the required training can attract state support through LSC funding. Unfortunately, the ring-fencing of LSC funding means much of the support cannot be accessed via a work-based learning provider (WBL). So the employer loses out or has to invest time and effort in finding other suppliers who can contract through their local LSC.

The reputation built up by WBL providers regarding their effectiveness in engaging employers has been thanks to a single product portfolio. Until August 2003 WBL providers' sole contract with the LSC was to deliver modern apprenticeships and preparatory training for young people through Entry to Employment. In effect, our only government-funded product was MAs for the young.

Last August, after an initiative taken by the Department for Education and Skills' Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit and the Association of Learning Providers, funds were provided for WBL providers to pilot Skills for Life, aimed at employed adults. In the first six months this welcome development has failed to take off, with no contracts signed in most LSC areas, despite the will of many providers to get involved.

In contrast, colleges are contracted to offer a wider portfolio of vocational options, including single NVQs for young people and adults - a facility sought by many employers but unavailable via independent WBL providers.

Training providers believe there is a demand for their services, which would be realised if they could offer a comprehensive whole-workforce suite of products.

This confidence has been borne out through the Employer Training Pilots in which 90 per cent of activity has been work-based and largely delivered by independent providers.

Despite the aims of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the pattern of learning provision in the past three years has barely changed. Any movement has been to reduce the number of independent providers and put pressure on the college sector to move into the WBL sector, despite its comparative weakness in that area.

The most common reason for not removing the barriers to progress is the need to avoid destabilising the FE college sector.

But a greater threat than the reduction of the college infrastructure is the threat to delivery of the skills strategy itself by not exploiting the potential of those providers who have the confidence of employers to deliver.

In a response to a request by ministers, the ALP has submitted a paper for discussion with the DfES and LSC with the aim of agreeing a protocol to increase the opportunity for independent providers to contribute to delivery in a planned way that would not destabilise the FE market.

The key is in the skills strategy.

There should be no artificial protection of one sector over another.

The sole criterion is capacity to deliver high quality to employers.

Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers.

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