Role-play challenge confronting firms and educators

Earlier this month there was a flurry of official activity and documentation on adult learning. Scottish Enterprise produced the report of the Scottish Skills Forum (complete with a CD-Rom version adhering shinily to the inside rear cover). The Scottish Office published a response to it and to their consultation on lifelong learning and adult guidance.

The documents accompanied ministerial announcements of support for adult guidance - building on the AEGIS initiative - and for the Scottish Campaign for Learning which had its "trade" launch at the same conference. More of the campaign in a later column, when it gets its full-scale launch; at this stage it is enough to record the encouraging list of those who have signed up as patrons. They include Richard Wilson, Elaine C. Smith, Lex Gold and Jimmy Boyle.

The skills forum report contains a number of sound recommendations. Many of these are uncontroversial but my eye was caught by the section on motivation, and especially the paragraphs on Investors in People. Not surprisingly, the report favours IIP, and is concerned by the slow progress being made towards it by Scottish employers. So it recommends what used to be called contract compliance. This is a device for using the weight of major consumers to ensure that the organisations they deal with comply with certain standards. These standards may be ones of direct business relevance, or wider ones, for example to do with environmental issues or equal opportunities. In this context, the proposal is that any organisation tendering for business from public funds should be expected to commit itself to seeking IIP status, if it does not already have it.

The chairman of the forum, Greg Bourne, appeared slightly surprised to find himself announcing this. Contract compliance was after all the type of interventionist measure which corporations usually fight hard against, and as a lifelong BP employee Mr Bourne had been introduced as corporate man par excellence. Nevertheless he was happy to endorse and present the recommendations.

The Government's response sidesteps the main recommendation under contract compliance. It confines itself to rejecting the subsidiary one, that members of bodies such as governing boards of further education colleges and Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise boards should be selected exclusively from people belonging to organisations with IIP commitment. I agree with the Government that this is too restrictive, but would like to see the main point answered.

However, the interesting issue here is that educational organisations are among the largest employers, as well as being major recipients of public contracts. Where would the enforcement of such a recommendation leave them? It would be interesting to know how educational institutions rate as employers, especially in relation to staff development. Several colleges and maybe also the old universities have gone for IIP status. There could be a problem for large institutions with decentralised decision-making structures in coming up with the required demonstration of corporate intent. But that should not allow them off the hook.

Link this to one of the key initial lines of development to be taken by the Scottish Campaign for Learning. It will mobilise local partnerships between employers and education providers, seeking to develop local employee development schemes within a national framework. Local colleges will get together to pool information and provide a wide range of courses for employers and their staff to choose from. Good education for business, and good business for educators.

But since education providers are also businesses, or at least employers, it seems perfectly fair to ask them to practise what they preach. So only those providers who participate as employers will be allowed to join as suppliers. If they cannot see their way to conferring educational benefits on their own staff, then they cannot reasonably expect to have access to the local consortium as providers. It is a very elementary case of recognising that organisations play several roles in a local community.

Contract compliance offers a refreshing chance for a new relationship between providers and consumers. It could at the same time give a good shot in the arm to good practice in educational employment.

Professor Tom Schuller is director for the centre of continuing education at the University of Edinburgh.

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