Action needed to set agenda for colleges

23rd March 2007 at 00:00

Major problems with skills training in Scotland should not be lightly dismissed

The response to the Leitch review of skills in the UK from Scottish interest groups, as reported in The TESS a few months ago under the headline "Scotland's top of the class", was largely predictable.

The overwhelming message was that all is well in Scotland: we have a working population generally more highly qualified than in the rest of the UK; a higher proportion of graduates in the workforce than the UK average; and we compare well with other EU countries in terms of workforce training.

Few would doubt that the further and higher education sector in Scotland is delivering ever greater success, but we also have major problems which should not be lightly glossed over.

Surveys conducted on international comparisons of labour markets and skills performance reveal that 800,000 adults (23 per cent) in Scotland are estimated to have low levels of literacy and numeracy skills; more effort is needed to improve "core" and "soft" skills; Scotland has a higher proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds not in education, employment or training than any other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country; and some sectors of the economy are in need of improved skills levels.

So we should give careful consideration to the calls coming from Lord Leitch.

The reasons for playing down his recommendations in Scotland are not hard to find. The root cause can be attributed to a fundamental difference in the prevailing philos-ophies between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments and in the policies of their respective funding councils to deliver education and training.

The Scottish Funding Council's corporate plan for 2006-09, setting out the aims that Scotland's colleges and universities should achieve collectively, does not specify how individual colleges and universities should contribute to these aims since "they are autonomous institutions and must decide how best to respond in light of their diverse roles and circumstances". This is a heavy responsibility to carry.

Thinking in England is in stark contrast. The Learning and Skills Council, the funding body for education and skills training, is rapidly moving towards a demand-led system for funding education and training - one in which the customer, whether learner or employer - is put in charge of their learning or training solutions.

A certain nervousness can be detected about Leitch's proposals in Scotland.

He states that responding to learner and employer demand, rather than funding supply, should be embedded in future funding arrangements. Such an approach would be unlikely to find favour here, since colleges and universities would only receive funding as they attract customers and not, as at present, a block grant based upon supply-side estimates of demand.

Implementing Leitch's proposals in Scotland would have major implications not only for colleges and universities in terms of the way funding would be allocated, but also for employers, learners and the funding council.

In England, target implementation dates to ensure learners hold the purse strings are challenging: Leitch recommends that public funding for adult vocational skills, apart from community learning, should be routed through Train to Gain, training programmes delivered in the workplace and offered through an impartial brokerage service, by 2010.

The higher profile accorded to sector skills councils would increase the likelihood of employers accepting more readily the benefits of training, and give them greater confidence that the system had become needs-based.

Leitch also envisages a clearer financial balance of responsibility between employers, the learner and government, based on government funding targeted at market failure. Government would continue to fund basic skills and skills for employability but, for intermediate skills, employers and individuals would be expected to make a greater financial contribution.

The Leitch report is only one of many published in support of radical changes to the FE system in England. Given this pace of change, much will be expected from the long-awaited report of the review of Scotland's colleges, especially if we are to keep pace with even a few of Leitch's recommendations.

Skills policy is devolved from Westminster but, following the publication of the report, the Treasury will expect a major action plan to improve skills in all four UK countries. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, commissioned the Leitch review and has already impressed upon employers his expectation that they should engage much more in setting the agenda for FE colleges.

It will be difficult for national employers to accept that this should apply in Keighley but not Kirkcaldy.

Jim Donaldson was chief inspector for FE in England and is now an educational consultant

LEITCH AT A GLANCE

Employers would have a much stronger voice in vocational education and training.

Sector skills councils would take the lead role in designing vocational qualifications which, once reshaped and approved by them, would then qualify for government funding.

Rationalising and simplifying the structure of qualifications is likely.

Learners would be given purchasing power in the form of learner accounts under a demand-led system, enabling them to make decisions on where to study or train, and the type of provider they attend.

More informed choices about the type of learning they want would be underpinned by data on skills trends, career progression routes and forecasts on future earnings.

A "skills health check" would be introduced for all adults of whom over 40 per cent should be qualified to Level 4 or above by 2020.Photograph of Lord Leitch at the Treasury: Peter Searle

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