System should be demand-led

A significant, but little-noticed, gathering took place in London last week, which could have a significant impact on the skills agenda in Scotland - the UK Commission for Employment and Skills held its first summer party.

Over the canapes and drinks, a consensus was forged on the way ahead for skills development in the UK - itself a remarkable achievement given the very different political hues of the regimes now holding sway at Westminster and in the three devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The TESS understands that, for the first time, there is now a "joined-up" approach to training and skills across the UK. This was symbolised by the presence of education ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also by the appearance of ministers from the key Whitehall departments - John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and James Purnell, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

According to Willy Roe, chair of Skills Development Scotland, who was present, all UK ministers are now signed up to the view that "the skills system should be seriously demand-led, driven by the needs of employers and the personalised needs of individuals".

Adam Ingram, the Scottish Minister for Children and Early Years, who attended the London event, agreed and said the new skills agency in Scotland would bring "synergy and joined-up delivery to information, advice and guidance for careers and learning, as well as extensive support for skills interventions in Scotland".

This will go some way to allaying the fears of those who were concerned that, following the Leitch review on skills, economic priorities and the demands of business would be in the driving seat. But Mr Roe, who is Scotland's national commissioner on the UK body, is adamant that there should be no conflict between the needs of employers and employees.

"This won't work unless our offerings motivate individuals and suit their needs," he said.

"Personalising the provision we make is hard but it's easier than it's ever been, particularly with the use of new technologies which motivates people."

Another change, signalled at the London soiree, was that the skills development and employabilityemployment agendas have to march in step - what Mr Roe describes as "the jobs you want and the skills you need". In practice, that will mean much closer working between jobs centres and skills organisations. There is already precedent in Northern Ireland, where the two are run as a single entity.

Mr Roe concedes it would make "a lot of sense" if the same thing happened in Scotland. This would mean devolving responsibility for the job centres network from the Department of Work and Pensions in London to the Scottish Parliament - and eventually, perhaps, absorbing them into Skills Development Scotland.

Meanwhile, talks are expected to get underway between SDS and job centre management to discuss how they can work more closely together. Some of SDS's 500 learning centres, inherited from learndirect scotland, already support job applicants who are referred by their local jobs centre when they sign on if they do not have "the skills they need for the job they want".

Any movement in this direction will already be able to draw on the experience of organisations such as the WISE group, which has been matching people to skills and jobs for many years. But, Mr Roe says: "They have been doing so despite the system, because the system is not unified. "If we can get this to work on a more extensive basis, it will provide a real enhancement of our customer focus."

Next week: "Boldly going where none have gone before" - the new skills agenda.

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