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One voice for four nations

Can all universities, colleges and private training firms in the UK be persuaded to belong to a single organisation to oversee the training of their workers? It's going to be tough, reports Steve Hook

A major step towards a common training system for those who teach in all UK colleges, universities and the workplace will be taken next week. All parties involved will meet and try to put aside their historic differences to hammer out a set of occupational standards for post-16 lecturers and trainers.

The meeting is intended to pave the way for the creation of a "lifelong learning" sector skills council. This would act as a single voice for the UK education industry, allowing employers of post-16 teachers to shape the way they are trained.

But the task will not be easy. Further education, universities, private training providers and employers all have different ideas of the kind of workers they want - and these differences must be resolved.

Even if this can be achieved, the sector skills council (SSC) faces a further obstacle before it can get up and running: as it is intended to be UK-wide, any one of the four home nations could veto its creation.

The latest initiative has been proposed by Jonathan Mackey, who has been seconded to the fledgling council as an adviser from the Department for Education and Skills' standards unit.

He sees the lifelong learning skills council as the most crucial of the SSCs being created as it will be an example for other sectors.

All the parties will meet at Windsor Castle on Thursday and Friday in an event organised by the St George's Fellowship, which specialises in mediation.

Present will be the separate national organisations that currently train the post-16 workforce. The largest of these is the further education National Training Organisation. Others include the Higher Education Standards Development Agency, Paulo (adult and commmunity) and the Association of Learning Providers.

All 72 national training organisations, covering most British industrial sectors, were abolished in April 2001 and it was planned to replaced them with a smaller number of SSCs, most of which are still not formed.

Alongside the NTOs at Windsor will be representatives from the governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England's DfES must get other nations on side to create a UK-wide approach for lifelong learning staff.

It must also allay the concerns of the smaller training organisations, who fear the interests of their workers could be forgotten as they merge into a single body.

One of the challenges will be how to represent the interests of different nations and sectors on the board of the new SSC. Groups accustomed to running their own training affairs will be fighting hard to retain their influence.

Should smaller areas such as adult and community learning, currently served by Paulo, be given equal weight alongside the mammoth FE college sector? If not, how are these smaller organisations going to be persuaded to give up their autonomy as they are subsumed into the new body?

Nobody knows. But, for Mr Mackey, Windsor is an opportunity for all parties to leave jargon at the door and bring their differences to the table. He said: "It entails sitting in a circle and talking without using acronyms.

And where jargon is used, we would encourage people to challenge it.

"At first, I found it quite impenetrable, as others still do. The language needs to be clarified and the issues brought out into the open. We need a normal level of conversation.

"TheDfES has taken the policy lead but it is a partnership of the four nations. Scotland looks at the qualifications of FE teachers differently from the way we do in England and Wales, and it is different in Northern Ireland. We have to build this organisation quickly. We are looking for a long-term pay-off. There is pressure to make good progress.

"One of the tricks is to get leading employers into the driving seat. Who better than employers to know what skills set they need?" But they must listen to others, including vice-chancellors of the universities and principals of FE colleges.

It is clear that one key post-16 group of workers will not be represented: the new organisation will not be responsible for the professional standards of school sixth-form teachers.

"There is a fuzzy line at post-16," said Mr Mackey.

"There are more than a million people whose occupational standards concern us. We would see sixth forms of schools as being on the other side of that line because you are not talking about a discrete post-16 workforce in schools.

"They might teach in the earlier years as well."

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