Suddenly community groups and charities have an important part to play in implementing government policy. On social inclusion, for instance. But are they ready for such work? And does it fall to FE to fill the training gaps? Martin Whittaker reports
Voluntary and community organisations have pride of place in the Government's agenda on social inclusion and education and training. But if the sector welcomes its priority status in the new post-16 world, it also knows there is a skills gap to address before it is truly up to the job.
According to the Voluntary Sector Na-tional Training Organisation (VSNTO), there is an urgent need for training in management, information and communication technology and fundraising among sector staff.
With the Learning and Skills Council will come a new opportunity for FE colleges to get in closer touch with voluntary and community organisations - to the mutual benefit of both.
The sector is vast: there are some 136,000 registered organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, from well-known charities such as Mencap, Age Concern and the NSPCC to tiny local groups with no paid staff. But all told, its paid workforce is bigger than agriculture or the textiles or car manufacturing industries.
This workforce has grown hugely since 1990 because of economic growth and new government initiatives, while smaller voluntary groups have been boosted by money from the National Lottery.
But much of this income is short-term, and organisations find it hard to get core funding, especially for training.
One in three organisations say it has difficulty filling jobs, while 30 per cent find it hard to recruit managers. Forty-four per cent of these organisations recognise significant skills gaps in their workforces, while 55 per cent say they don't know how to make best use of information technology; 38 per cent say they lack even basic IT skills.
According to a draft blueprint for developing the sector's workforce drawn up by the VSNTO, small groups in particular will need help with skills if they are to cope with the new demands placed on them. The report says all voluntary groups, big and small, find existing training from learning providers, including FE, so expensive as to be effectively inaccessible for most of the sector. Thus, the report calls for flexible, work-based learning for small organisations.
Relationships between voluntary groups and colleges haven't always been easy. The report also says that franchising arrangements with colleges, designed to deliver learning with money from the Further Education Funding Council, have been "criticised within the sector as expensive and exploitative" and have often led to "hostility to further education providers in many localities". Many groups are therefore looking to the new funding regime as a chance toaddress their skills challenge anew.
Ben Kernighan, VSNTO's head of development, says: "Voluntary organisations are hoping that the new system will go some way to evening out the power imbalance that existed under the old funding regime.
"It should be the opportunity for voluntary organisations and colleges to develop more equal and productive relationships.
"Priorities for the national LSC are in widening participation in training, addressing issues around equality of opportunity and increasing the demand for learning.
"I think sensible colleges will realise that meaningful partnerships with local voluntary and community organisations will be a very good way of helping them deliver a lot of that mission."
Mr Kernighan believes colleges should start to look at how they can address these needs and break down barriers such as cost and lack of time.
"This is particularly an issue for people in small voluntary organisations," he says.
"They cannot go on long courses because people who depend on their services won't get them. So the ability to provide learning so that people can do it from their place of work is all-important."
Some voluntary organisations are developing their own consortiums, which will work and in some cases already work alongside colleges.
Rotherham College, which has a successful unit that acts as an intermediary between college and voluntary sector, is exciting much interest, while Norwich City College has employed a co-ordinator to encourage voluntary-sector partnerships.
Given its new wider remit, the Learning and Skills Development Agency, formerly FEDA, will be working with voluntary and community learning providers.
Sue Taylor, of LSDA, is in no doubt about the potential benefits to colleges.
"There are opportunities in the new framework for colleges to take the initiative and strengthen their links with the voluntary sector for the benefit of both sides," she says.
"For the college, good links with community organisations can increase their market because it will give them access to groups of potential learners that they didn't have before.
"For the voluntary and community organisation, it can give them access to expertise - both for the learners they serve and for their own staff."
But Charles Searle, chair of Cumbria Voluntary Sector Training Forum believes many colleges still have a long way to go.
"They need to be much more flexible in the way they work with voluntary organisations," he says. "They can't just expect people to slot into pre-existing, off-the-shelf programmes, which from their point of view are easier to deliver.
"There needs to be much more of an artisan approach, rather than a mass production approach, to delivery. And that's what we're trying to educate those people about."