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Relegation battle in the league of skills

If the UK is to remain the fourth-largest economy in the world, it must transform the skills of its workforce or slip into the sweat- shop economy league. Comparisons are not encouraging: 24 per cent of the workforce has level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualifications, compared with 42 per cent in France, and 58 per cent in Germany. Level 3 (A-level equivalent) figures are 19 per cent, 28 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

The white paper, "Getting on in Business, Getting on at Work", pledges to re-skill the nation by "designing and delivering publicly-funded training and qualifications in a way which is directly led by the needs of employers" and by promoting higher levels of investment and commitment in training by employers.

The white paper has welcome elements but, as we prepare for a new set of ministers, we will impress upon them that, while adult learning is bound to be "untidy", we don't need to complicate it further with the half-baked plans for private skills academies. We will also stress that the white paper will fail because:

* the focus is too narrowly on employers' needs rather than the changing needs of employment;

* it is not interventionist enough to foster a learning and training culture in every workplace;

* the substantial tinkering with the training superstructure does not connect with workplaces;

* and it fails to address the basic question: how can we help practitioners to develop the skills of their students and trainees?

It proposes that some 24 employer-led sector skills councils reach "sector skills agreements" that identify which skills are needed and set out the action needed to secure their development. This superstructure seems to have many levers on the desk but there is little evidence of their connection to workplaces. While the SSCs will shape vocational education, they are unlikely to have the "strong demand side" function that the Government allocated them.

The white paper shows a scant grasp of general education as preparation for work in the 21st century, and the SSC's influence on the vocational curriculum might result in too narrow a focus. There is little incentive for employers to give their workforce more than the minimum skills to meet their own needs, which are unlikely to match those of the industry, sector, nation, or Europe.

It relies on encouragement to employers, but does not compel them to engage in education or training. A "post-voluntarist" approach is needed which recognises that everyone is in this together. A situation in which a few coach and the rest poach cannot be tolerated. Young people's right to paid educational leave should be extended to a wider age group. There should be a right to ask for such leave, an explanation of rejections and a right to a review of training needs. Industries that depend on regulators should train more to remedy the loss of training capacity after privatisation of utilities and compulsory competitive tendering in local government. Tax breaks or penalties could be deployed with PLCs.

Training should be central to collective bargaining and included in the information and consultation rules. The right to six-monthly consultation on training in workplaces with "new" union recognition by ballot procedure should be extended to workplaces with traditional union recognition.

Consultation on re-training should be carried out where there are redundancies. Committees could give workforce development the boost which safety committees gave to health and safety in the 1970s. They could consider proposals from the SSCs and engage union learning reps to draw up plans to harness latent demand for vital skills.

This would focus the TUC's Union Academy support for the expansion of union learning reps from 8,000 to 22,000 by 2010. The academy could be as significant in its field as the Open University. The Learning and Skills Council needs re-basing at regional development agency level with a re-empowerment and democratisation of college governing bodies. Its remit should be broadened to encourage free level 3 courses for all within five years.

The white paper says little on the education, training and continuous professional development of lecturers, tutors and trainers in the colleges, whose morale can have such an effect on others' motivation. You can't upskill a nation with a demoralised workforce.

Paul Mackney is general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe

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