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MPs take skills training to task

Year-long inquiry set to scrutinise key government reforms. Ian Nash reports

The influential education select committee of MPs is to carry out a year-long investigation into the state of skills training in Britain.

It will scrutinise the resource implications of government policies which, the chairman Barry Sheerman fears, could lead to a "bureaucratic nightmare" as bad as that which ministers hope to end.

"A thorough look at the state of the nation's skills training is timely if not overdue," he told FE Focus. "It is a very long time since the committee has addressed the issue. We have not looked at it since Labour came to power. The current debate over links between skills and productivity led us to go there."

Mr Sheerman is unfazed by the fact that numerous other committees and taskforces are working on skills. He insists his inquiry will add to the weight of evidence. "We are in a unique position to take a dispassionate and objective view."

The inquiry, to be launched next month, will be a rolling programme of investigations with interim reports on key issues along the way.

"We will be looking at three or four essential nuggets central to the Government's policies."

It will start with what Mr Sheerman believes is "the most pressing issue - modern apprenticeships".

Second, the committee will scrutinise how compatible the 14-19 reforms are with the national skills strategy.

A third task will be to look at how all the myriad agencies - the Learning and Skills Council, regional development agencies and sector skills councils - join up. This is the area where Mr Sheerman fears the greatest bureaucratic nightmare.

But scrutiny of modern apprenticeships has to come first, he insists. "It is an area of very serious concern. The retention rates are bloody awful - three-quarters of trainees either drop-out or fail."

When he voiced his concern to a minister recently, he says: "I was told, 'Not to worry, they are getting jobs'."

However, Mr Sheerman is concerned about the status of such jobs. "There is no guarantee that the skills are there. We are still in a country where people can go into jobs at 16 with no skills training. That must be stopped."

In addition, the committee will visit Denmark, Germany and the United States, to study parallel 14-19 and skills training policies. "A vast amount of money is spent by the state but it's too bureaucratic and inflexible. For instance, with the LSC, which spends pound;9 billion a year, everything is tied up except for 7 per cent of the cash."

The select committee inquiry has been welcomed by the Association of Colleges whose annual conference in Birmingham in two weeks focuses on workforce development. John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, said: "The Government has taken the agenda forward in a very big way but there are still key issues to address.

"How far is the focus on level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) adult training entitlement going to meet the skills needs? We have many measures in place to stimulate demand but are they adequate? And are employers sufficiently tuned into this and improving the skills of their workforce?"

Mr Brennan pointed to the report out this week from a UK Skills survey of 1,400 workers. It shows that while half the workforce believes skills training would help them in their current job, only 15 per cent get any.

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