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Slicing off the top in the skills sector

In my nearest city centre is a huge billboard advertising one of the local business schools. "Make eagles, not doves", it shrieks. The image of a soaring predator struck me as deeply inappropriate in today's business development environment. It was a relief to hear that the new Centre for Excellence in Leadership for the learning and skills sector is not going into the eagle-training business. The centre seems more interested in carrier pigeons, who will spread leadership skills throughout organisations.

The buzz-phrase at a recent leadership conference was "distributed leadership". In contrast to the comforts of the golf-famous Belfry Hotel, where the conference took place, the new centre will have no classrooms.

This is no cosy staff college, but a virtual learning environment. There was lots of visionary talk about values, standards, culture change, and so on, but remarkably little about the skills of managing people or money.

This was a pity, as there was some pretty low-level thinking around the business of costs, prices, and who pays. Some college managers cannot work out that if the Department for Education and Skills or the Learning and Skills Council pay their tuition fees, the money will come from what might otherwise have gone into their local budget. This is called top-slicing.

Others believed that a course fee of pound;3,000, to be paid from a staff development budget of pound;30,000, meant that the fees were too high, and not that their training and development budget was too low. In 1998, Further Education Funding Council inspectors found colleges spending up to 2 per cent of payroll costs on staff development, which would now be getting on for pound;100,000 for a medium-sized college. Two per cent is well below what a good human resources manager would want to spend.

If the learning providers don't regard learning as an investment, who will? Top-slicing might produce a really powerful, inclusive, management development programme for the sector. After all, with luck, the top that gets sliced might be at the LSC or the DfES.

Can the learning and skills sector regard itself as a corporate entity, or is it just a collection of small or medium-sized businesses? The pay-off of a corporate leadership development programme would be a levelling up of performance, and career opportunities beyond the immediate confines of your own organisation.

The people running the Black Leadership Initiative have already grasped this message. They offer cross-sector secondments, mentoring arrangements, and career-path planning. These need a system bigger than the local branch office, and Learning and Skills plc can only benefit.

A zippy presentation about the executive development programme at Lloyds TSB emphasised the point. The bank shares some characteristics with the learning and skills sector. Four hundred managers are earmarked for the programme (similar to the number of college principals); it costs pound;3,500 for each of them; their performance is assessed against a profile of characteristics that are not all hawk-like, and their target is to satisfy shareholders.

Currently, these shareholders get out at least a quarter of what they put in, every year: can we say that much about our learners? Lloyds TSB is also clear about the difference between management and leadership - management is about creating order, and leadership is about producing change.

The mode of address of the new organisation is still a problem. The company that holds the partnership together is "inspirelearning ltd"; the organisation will be known as the "Centre for Excellence in Learning" (sector unspecified); the website is; some refer to the Leadership College, real or virtual. The centre is already CEL.

As we left the Belfry, the only eagles were those being scored on the golf course, and expectations of the CEL were soaring. Like a golf handicap, this initiative is a long-term investment, and there should be no more nonsense about its being self-financing in three years - both personal and organisational development takes longer.

It's almost 10 years since the FE staff college closed, so let's hope its virtual successor will be given at least that length of time to take root in the system.

The author is an education consultant

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