Cannot swallow any more fudge

4th June 2004 at 01:00
We're recreating the TEC", chuckled a senior manager of a Business Link recently to a former chief executive of an erstwhile training and enterprise council.

Seven years after one of Tony Blair's advisers told me during Labour's election campaign that TECs were likely to be disbanded because there were too many agencies, we have come full circle.

The irony is that during this period the Government has created the Learning and Skills Council, the Small Business Service, regional development agencies, Jobcentre Plus, sector skills councils and UfI's Learndirect - all with a remit in the skills agenda. Some of these have replaced other organisations, but it would require a diehard New Labour loyalist to claim that we have witnessed a bureaucratic rationalisation.

And who has gained from this structural change? Every consultation document says it is the learner and employer who should reap the benefits. In the Learning and Skills Development Agency's new year lecture, Sir Anthony Greener argued that our educational system seemed to be provider-led rather then learner-led. He felt that a major problem lay with fresh initiatives emanating regularly from separate Whitehall silos with a lack of logical connections.

But at least for the learner, the fulcrum of accountability is found in one government department. The employer must wonder what's going on when one month, he might get a call from his Business Link adviser, a month later from the skills broker at his local LSC and a third from the local job centre asking if he will take on an unemployed person with some subsidised basic skills training.

The employer probably doesn't realise that these agencies report to three different departments and it may be unimportant if he is getting a good service. But, as there could be approaches from local colleges, chamber or training provider offering LSC-supported courses, we are a long way from the dream of a one-stop skills shop for businesses.

With employer engagement, the Government seems like an eager child at a hoopla stall, who given enough turns, will eventually land a prize. The cost to the taxpayer cannot be dismissed and as the holder of the taxpayer's purse strings, the Treasury offers a useful starting point for drumming some sense into the system.

Chancellor Gordon Brown rightly focuses on the economy benefiting from productivity levels comparable with G8 competitors. But allowing TECs to be dissolved led to a split of responsibilities for training and enterprise, which has severely blunted efforts to promote workforce development.

Up step the regional development agencies backed by the "new localism" mantra. The Budget confirmed the takeover of Business Links, while a discussion document fudged the question of RDAs assuming control of the LSC.

The implications of a change in the LSC could be enormous for colleges.

Strategic area reviews and Treasury minister John Healey's "tell it like it is" speech at the Association of College's conference have urged colleges further on to the employability agenda, although their conspicuous absence from the Prime Minister's recent speeches may set the alarm bells ringing.

Entwined with the DfES, colleges might feel their basic infrastructure will be protected. But they could also become just another supplier in a mixed market from which beefed-up Business Links could purchase learning on behalf of employers. With different sponsoring departments, it may not be an easy or lucrative relationship.

The Government may decide that whatever the lines of accountability, colleges and others should be encouraged to go on engaging employers without needing the brokerage of others, but then we're back at our hoopla stall.

The new testament of "choice and contestability" in public services reaffirms the customer as king. But when it comes to encouraging training, it is arguable whether the public sector should be providing employers with several subsidised choices with the price tag that comes attached.

Therefore, we need a roadmap which is honest about how agencies and learning providers will work together to deliver a demand-led and cost-effective skills strategy. With the future position of the LSC unclear and the remit of colleges under the microscope, the time for fudge is over.

Aidan Relf is director of rgmr consultancy

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