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Prepare for a shift of focus

The new skills minister Phil Hope plans to adjust priorities in the field of adult learning. Ian Nash reports

Phil Hope, the new adult skills minister, says more must be done to protect leisure courses along with those for those for the low-paid and people seeking self-improvement.

But he insists that this must be subservient to the Government's priorities - adult basic skills, education and training of 16 to 18-year-olds and the drive to get everyone qualified to level 2 (GCSE equivalent).

In his first interview with the press since being appointed, he told FE Focus that so-called leisure courses were to be encouraged as a step towards better skills.

In apparent contrast to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's comments (see story below), he suggests that the Government may have to take some responsibility for protecting courses.

"We need to ensure that they carry on in some shape or form because they help people into work and into training.

"We must make sure these kinds of opportunity are looked at carefully when the shift in priorities is made."

His overtly utilitarian focus will disappoint many colleges, although it was to be expected as the Government sets about the biggest-ever shift in resources towards the needs of employment.

He rejected the argument that thousands of adults below the breadline would lose out through the Government's priorities and other cash constraints. In an effort to protect much of the 70 per cent of "other" adult education courses outside the Government's priority list, he said: "We have to get clever about the subtleties around what this culture shift represents."

Mr Hope is a former schoolteacher. His wife is an FE lecturer at the Tresham Institute.

"It is the detail that has to be got right," he said. "I am not pretending it is going to be easy but the overriding priorities - to consider the benefits to individuals, employers and the economy - have to come first."

He accepted that this was "a hard message" to get across, particularly since there were demands for a hike in fees to meet the shortfall.

In recognising the difficulties, Mr Hope hinted at the need for a gradual approach to such changes. "We have to consider carefully the period over which this (rise in fees) take place." he said.

He ruled out any question of additional cash in the interim. "Regrettably, I am not a Treasury minister," he said That position is now being enjoyed by Ivan Lewis, his predecessor as skills minister before the post-election re-shuffle.

Nor was there any scope for a diversion of existing cash to alleviate pressures from the skills agenda. "Frankly, it is not a choice," he said.

"This is the way we have to go. That is the view of the Chancellor, who is convinced of this for the future of Britain's competitiveness."

Mr Hope was interviewed during a visit to the British Gas Engineering Academy, in west London. The skills academy has eight regional centres and three colleges in partnership - Blackburn, Filton and Stourbridge - and is a model for basic skills and apprenticeships which the Government would like duplicated by other industries.

In the two years since it opened, almost 3,000 people have been trained in response to a shortfall of 20,000 gas engineers and mechanics. Many trainees on benefits started with no basic skills.

The academy is also attempting to recruit groups such as women, accounting for 10 oer cent of trainees, and ethnic minorities, accounting for 15 per cent.

More than 80 per cent are still in work six months after training and the initiative has provided staff for 300 small companies which could not afford to do their own training.

There were strong messages from trainees for Mr Hope about the need for more cash and publicity. Christalla Egbers, a 46-year-old single mother-of-two, searched the internet and signed-up for a 21-week Ambition Energy course to train as a service engineer. The scheme is a Welfare to Work programme supported by Jobcentre Plus.

"I am always seeking information and am involved in Women in Manual Trades," she said.

For many, though, the message is not getting through.

"There should be more communication with women," she said. "People are not aware of such opportunities."

This presents a problem for ministers trying to hit the initial skills targets.

Mr Hope insists that industry must pay a bigger share. He said the national roll-out of the employer training pilots next year "will provide a one-stop shop and brokerage service to bring together companies with skills shortages and people with training needs".

He added: "We have 16,000 companies and 160,000 already doing this. I think in two to three years we will see quite a change."

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