A business breakfast at No 11 Downing Street on April 13 has quietly laid down markers for a radical shake-up in post-16 education. A think tank of industrialists and academics is devising a strategy to ensure colleges and the new local learning and skills councils give the country the best managers and leaders in the world.
Since that meeting, there has been none of usual razzamatazz associated with sweeping reform. But do not be fooled by the low profile - the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership, as the think tank was called, will shape the agenda of the sector.
Its main task will be to make sense of the hotch-potch of professional qualifications, higher-level NVQs and postgraduate business qualifications. College management will also be put under the microscope - with questions arising over how well some govern their affairs and whether the sector can provide the kind of skills the UK needs in the new information-based world order.
In many ways colleges are low on the council's list of priorities. Its first tasks include finding out why small businesses are not signing up to lifelong learning, why the take up of management NVQs is disappointingly low, and why there is a yawning skills gap in junior and middle management.
Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of AEA Technology and leader of the council, is angry at what he sees as a structural weakness in British management. He lays down a challenge to the FE sector. "Why are there only half as many people studying NVQs in management as there are people taking MBAs in business schools?" This skills gap is becoming more apparent with the rise ofe-commerce and the growing role of small businesses. Smaller, leaner companies rely far more heavily on junior staff. According to Sir Anthony, colleges have to adapt to a changing world. "Management de-layering and delegation of responsibilities means people need management skills much lower down an organisation and much earlier in their careers."
Margaret Murray, of the Confederation of British Industry' agrees. "There is a skills gap at NVQ level 4 which varies from sector to sector. The manager's role has changed dramatically over the past five years. We're seeing an end to the old top-down approach and the development of a new role where young managers train and motivate staff by letting them fly, not driving them."
Sir Anthony's think tank will inevitably look at frameworks of qualifications. In particular, it will study the way in which the professions have successfully hung on to old qualifications in the teeth of new vocational offrings. "For UK companies to survive in a fast changing world," says Sir Anthony, "we've got to tackle management education from two angles. One, you have to reward and incentivise employees for gaining management qualifications. And two, you have to persuade employees that if they want to go into management then they'll be expected to demonstrate capability."
FE and the national training organisations have been getting to grips with these issues through the inclusion of key skills in solidly vocational qualifications. Team building, leadership, and use of information technology are all part of what the Council for Excellence wants to see in place. But there are much wider issues.
Ted Parker, principal of Barking College in north-east London, is already prepared for the changes. His senior staff are studying for the MBA. "We're beginning to align the qualifications of our strategic management team with the demands of the post and with emerging FENTO (Further Education National Training Organisation) standards," he says.
Mr Parker dismisses criticisms that NVQs are light on up-to-date management skills. He says: "We've got 50 Fords Dagenham apprentices on an advanced engineering programme. If Fords pull out, I can't see these guys standing around looking helpless. They've got very marketable skills."
Liz Amos, the chief adviser to the new council, believes old funding formulas that linked cash to qualifications will not wash; the new learning and skills councils must take a wider view and be prepared to fund more flexible initiatives.
"There are different means of delivering training. Online learning over the Internet, mentoring and networking opportunities for small businesses work well when given a chance. Small businesses are a fantastic network who can learn from each other. Peer group support can be very useful."
Will it happen? Ms Amos is certain that a survey of best practice and a framework of examinations will emerge. She adds: "We can bring influence to bear on the FE sector. There are levers to pull."
EXCELLENCE AS STANDARD
The Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership - set up by the Department for Education and Employment, the Department for Trade and Industry and the Treasury - is led by Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of AEA Technology. It includes Sir Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the DFEE, Professor Andrew Lock of the Association of Business Schools, Sarah Anderson of the Confederation of British Industry, and Dr Anthony Hayward, vice-president of BP Amoco.
The council has six steering groups studying company leadership and management, business schools, the professions, small businesses, future trends and the measurement of results.