Champion for those at the sharp end
The Association of Learning Providers seemed to come from nowhere. It was launched last December after a group of big, mainly private, training organisations met to take stock of the imminent post-16 changes.
"We wish to be involved with the consultation process and to make some input into the new environment, which the 2,000 training providers have more experience of dealing with than anybody else," says its chairman, Hugh Pitman. "They're the people at the sharp end - they're the equivalent of colleges and schools."
He says that, until now, training companies have had no representation. His plans for the association are ambitious. Its documentation proposes it should become "the co-ordinating organisation for policy and strategy for employer-focused, demand-led training provision in the workplace".
An accompanying flow-chart sets out this vision of the future: the association is slap-bang in the centre of things, feeding straight to government ministers and the Department for Education and Employment. Off to the sides, linking through the association, is every other organisation connected with post-16 and work-based learning, including the University for Industry, the awarding bodies and national training organisations.
Is he serious? No doubt about it. "This has become almost a movement - in as much as providers are recognising that they really do need to have a voice," he insists. "We have a situation where the Government, the DFEE and the DTI (Department for Trade and Industry) are very much listening and wishing to have an input from providers."
Hugh Pitman is chairman and chief executive of JHP Group Ltd, a training company he developed from a family education dynasty stretching back six generations to Sir Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand. He is keen to emphasise that the Association of Learning Providers is not a membership organisation. It is he says, a "network of networks" that will work closely with the Government, employers and all other agencies involved in work-based learning.
In its first six months, some 18 training companies and organisations had joined the association. It has also been busy forging links in Wales and Scotland and, over the past few months, it has been keen to court the FE sector.
Despite a somewhat cool response from the Association of Colleges, Hugh Pitman insists the relationship is a good one. "We've had some excellent discussions with David Gibson (AOCchief executive) and we're just deciding what the relationship should be of colleges who are themselves providers of work-based training.
"Up to now colleges have had their own structure with the Association of Colleges. What we're looking for in the future is a much closer relationship between colleges and private providers of all kinds.
"We are looking at each side of training, playing to their strengths and, as far as we can, working together.
"Where I think the private providers can really contribute is with links with employers, which perhaps they find easier than some of the colleges do."
Some colleges are wary of private training organisations: they are concerned about the quality of provision and that the companies are only interested in profitable courses.
But Hugh Pitman rejects this: "I think everyone needs to recognise that the private providers have, almost without exception, a huge vocational interest in the betterment of young people and unemployed adults.
"I know that in our own organisation we have quite a problem in getting our excellent staff in the field to be commercial enough, because clearly you can't run the thing at a loss. But as far as the work that's done, I think it's broadly comparable with the work done in colleges. There's a lot of common ground. The college has to make a surplus, the private provider has to make a profit and it's the same thing, I would suggest."