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Skills: the future is regional

But there are worries that next week's White Paper to transform skills will not live up to the hype. Ian Nash reports

REGIONAL "skills alliances" that link local learning bodies, regional development agencies and business will be at the heart of the long-awaited White Paper next week to improve the skills of the nation's workforce.

The Government will demand a new approach to workforce training, business development and adult learning. Ministers will call for a closer alliance of key organisations, integrating some work of regional development agencies, local learning and skills councils, the new sector skills councils and business organisations.

At the core of the skills strategy is a right to training for two key underskilled groups: adults without a "first" level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification; and 19 to 30-year-olds without a level 3 (A-level) qualification. However, funding of other adult learning will be cut to pay for this.

The White Paper will not please the unions. Ministers have shied away from forcing employers to train workers by, for example, paying training levies.

The paper says: "The Government does not believe the case for compulsion is yet proven." It cites the need to "keep regulatory burdens to a minimum" and says " it must first ensure that schools, colleges, universities and private training providers are responding effectively to needs."

However, employers will be warned that they must respond to the "invitation" to get involved. At the launch of the White Paper next Wednesday, Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary , will tell employers it is their last chance to avoid government intervention.

But they will also insist that new Whitehall-backed regional skills strategies - cutting across all government departments - should be given time to work.

After the constant delays getting the White Paper out, one Whitehall watcher told FE Focus that ministers can expect a rocky ride.

"It's that familiar New Labour story," he said, "where a policy paper is promised in advance with lots of fanfare, is then delayed because there is no big idea to match the hype and is finally published when civil servants and special advisers have finally cobbled something together."

Other papers had followed this pattern, including the lifelong learning White Paper, promised in autumn 1997 and delivered as the Learning Age Green Paper late in spring 1998; and the higher education White Paper, promised in autumn 2001 and delivered in January 2003. Similar delays are also expected with the 14-19 curriculum reforms.

There are also questions over the aims of the strategy. Julian Gravatt, finance director of the City Lit, who becomes FE policy director at the Association of Colleges this autumn, said: "The big idea in the skills strategy is that 'everyone should have a level 2 qualification' which doesn't exactly set the heart racing. And there is the inevitable question: what exactly is a level 2 qualification?"

The biggest problem may prove to be a monumental turf war among organisations which should be supporting the alliance. If the approach to skills is now going to be regional, it raises a big question: why did the Government create an LSC with 47 local arms? Should local LSCs be merged to create a small number of regional skills bodies?

And what of the relative powers of different agencies? At present, bodies that would take the lead in any future "regional alliance" work in voluntary partnerships and the cash involved is relatively small. But the White Paper will pump more than pound;250 million into one area of adult skills. Euro-cash and further industry support will multiply this. Can voluntary partnerships carry all that?

Compared with the pound;8.2 billion LSC budget, regional bodies are small spenders. But RDAs are being given more clout. Steve Broomhead, chief executive of the Northwest Development Agency, said: "It is the elected regional assemblies that will have responsibility for overseeing skills.

That is why LSCs have to see the importance of getting behind the regional agenda."

But will voluntary regional skills alliances be enough to transform the workforce? In the North-west the RDA and local LSCs have discovered that more radical reform is needed.

The Northwest Action for Skills and Productivity plan has brought together Business Links, the five local LSCs, the RDA and other interests for a coherent approach to workforce development. Starting with pound;7m of RDA money, it has drawn down more than pound;45m to develop regional skills.

This clearly is progress but more needs to be done.

Long-term projections for the North-west suggest deepening recruitment crises in science and engineering. To avoid these, pupils aged 13 and under must be targeted now. On the subject of pupils, the White Paper may have little to say, but Mr Broomhead insists: "That is where the White Paper agenda must start." Indeed, is there a need to regionalise the 14 to 19 curriculum? And will there be a role for local education authorities?

The RDAs were created in 1999 and had regional skills strategies in place when local LSCs were created 18 months later. Five LSCs were created in the North-west, despite the RDA's plea to have just one.

While the RDA had to approve councils' strategic plans, they were inevitably all different. Chambers of commerce complained that, where companies had to deal with more than one council, there was "utter confusion" and a "bureaucratic nightmare". They said businesses found themselves confused about where to go for advice.

And just when the confusion was being tackled in the regions, ministers made further demands for a Framework for Regional Employment and Skills Action (FRESA) from each RDA.

This was not entirely negative. Fran Hulbert, head of skills policy at the Northwest Development Agency, said: "It made us think about the wider issues of location, transport, wages, welfare support, childcare needs, school performance and the roundness of people's lives. All the things related to employability and the economy."

There has been widespread co-operation, particularly from colleges, which make-up 80 per cent of learning providers. "We envisage that the FRESA could be the model for the new regional strategic alliance."

But not all the RDAs have such constructive relationships with local LSCs, nor will all the various agencies and local authorities do what regional bodies ask them to. The general consensus is that the White Paper must call for more than voluntary partnerships and reforms should be properly funded.

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