Eyebrows were raised among independent training providers when the Department for Education and Skills' new director-general for lifelong learning, Stephen Marston, told FE Focus last month that policy pronouncements about a demand-led skills strategy were being "misunderstood".
Some providers understandably asked which part of demand-led was it that they didn't understand. To be fair, the director-general immediately explained that it was satisfying employers' demands for training which lay at the core of what the department was trying to achieve. Of course, this mirrors a principle that the Association of Learning Providers has been promoting throughout its relatively short existence, while the Confederation of British Industry has become increasingly vocal about state-supported training being more responsive to its members' needs.
Mr Marston has in many ways done everyone a big favour by saying in public what we all know in private - that public diktats about demand-led activity are not as black and white as they seem. The policy is meant to be at the heart of the Government's new employer training programme, due to come on stream next year, and it is consistent with the "choice and contestability"
agenda that is evident in the Government's efforts to improve efficiency in public service delivery.
The difficulty for the DfES and the Learning and Skills Council is that it presents an undeniable tension with their other stated aim of protecting college infrastructure.
I have said many times that we want to see FE colleges thrive as part of a skills strategy that tackles the global economic challenge facing Britain today. This is one reason why the ALP has been committed to reaching a consensus with other representatives from the post-16 sector on the way forward for colleges and independent providers which is now being promoted by the TES-sponsored Concord group.
Furthermore, we have confidence that Sir Andrew Foster's review will articulate a clear vision on the role that all providers can play in improving business competitiveness and social cohesion.
Nevertheless, efforts to make more colleges more employer-friendly will take time and the countdown to the NETP is ticking away fast. The successful employer training pilots could not wait for this to happen and official data reveals that 69 per cent of their delivery ended up in the hands of independent providers, because employers, given a genuine choice, expressed this as a preference. Depending on how much college infrastructure is to be preserved - and ALP believes that much should be - time needs to be bought for colleges. As they meet for the Association's autumn conference on Monday, the concern of ALP members that to achieve this an unhealthy degree of protectionism is being built into the design of the NETP.
Employers will be able to choose their providers under the new scheme, ministers assure us, but it will be an "informed choice". The guidance for employers will be part of a regional brokerage system that will follow a national LSC template. The ALP has not seen this template but independent providers will want assurances that informed choice does not mean that nanny state knows best. This is not unreasonable, given that LSC officials have admitted that NETP funding is being ring-fenced for colleges in advance of the programme's launch, irrespective of which type of provider an employer is likely to choose.
What happens if employer demand for independent providers in a region starts to push the limit of the sector's funding quota? Will employers who come late to the party be guided to college provision whether or not it is in their interests, simply because of a funding requirement introduced by the LSC? No wonder the CBI used the findings from its recent annual employers survey to argue again for the training supply market to be opened up.
The Chancellor's drive to raise productivity is in danger of stalling if employer demand for skills is not met through real choice.
The ALP understands this. Stephen Marston understands this. Now is the time for the NETP programme designers to show that they understand it as well.
If not, it would be better not to have any more ministerial speeches about a demand-led skills strategy so that there is no possibility of providers and employers misunderstanding them.
Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers.
For more details see www.learningproviders.org.uk