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Skill-raising must be a group effort

TThe eagerly awaited post-16 skills white paper provides new employer-led sector skills councils with an ideal opportunity to flex their muscles.

By granting the mostly fledgling SSCs a key role in determining how we should raise skill levels among young people and adults, it confirms the Government's commitment to a demand-led system of vocational learning.

The crucial question now is how the lifelong-learning sector responds to this challenge. Will it view the increased involvement by employers as an unwelcome imposition, or can we confidently expect teachers, trainers and other learning professionals to embrace the new agenda?

As chief executive of a skills council committed to increasing the skill levels of more than one million employees working in the field of lifelong learning, I have no doubt that further education colleges and other learning providers already possess the talent and expertise needed to make sure that the supply side responds positively to the Government's proposals.

But in some cases, it will require refocusing priorities to ensure institutions are fully in tune with the needs of business and industry - not least when employers are paying a significant portion of the cost of new specialist academies.

It is only through feedback from the Skills for Business network, which will ultimately represent more than 85 per cent of the UK workforce, that the full extent of skills gaps and shortages will be evident to learning providers.

At the same time, the 25 SSCs that are either in operation now or about to gain licences can also help to build vital bridges between themselves and, on the demand side, employers.

Within this network, it is recognised that Lifelong Learning UK is in a unique position to broker agreements with employers in other sectors, at the same time as demonstrating that it is only through raising the quality of learning that we will see the desired results.

Before employers and staff in lifelong learning start to complain about further change, it is important to recognise the steps we have already taken to create a more effective and responsive system.

Four years ago, lecturers in further education were not even required to hold a teaching qualification. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Further Education National Training Organisation, we have national standards in place on which training for teachers, managers and learning support staff can be based.

Last year, the Government proposed a further radical programme which was intended to increase the skills of the lifelong learning workforce, which includes FE, work-based learning, higher education, libraries and adult and community learning.

From 2007, all post-16 trainee teachers will have opportunities to develop skills that reflect precisely where they work in lifelong learning, prior to gaining Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (QTLS) status - the so-called licence to practice.

Thanks to this and other initiatives, the distinctions between different parts of the sector are slowly being broken down.

We are truly becoming a learning and skills, or lifelong learning, sector that recognises the importance of learning that takes place in the classroom, the workplace and other, less formal, settings.

Teachers in colleges and the workplace have already acknowledged the part they will play in improving vocational education for 14 to 16-year-olds as part of the Tomlinson reforms.

The new academies proposed in the skills white paper should offer better guidance and leadership to the existing networks of centres of vocational excellence that also depend upon high-quality teaching.

Ultimately, Britain's skills base will only improve if those people who are charged with providing courses are at the leading edge of technological and other developments and fully qualified to transform the learning environment to the benefit of everyone.

David Hunter is chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK, the sector skills council for post-16 education

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