Don't let free-for-alls turn off Train to Gain

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Nick Linford

Train to Gain suffered a painfully slow start in 2007 but, much like the college capital programme, it has quickly become a victim of its own success. Demand for funding now outstrips supply, employers are reporting that they cannot access the programme, and newspapers are running headlines such as "Train to Gain is bust".

To add insult to injury, the National Audit Office said in July that Train to Gain was "poor value for money", the UK Commission for Employment and Skills this month criticised it for funding "assessment only" and the Conservatives have made it clear that they would use the pound;1 billion budget for something else.

While it might be tempting to join the bashing bandwagon, in reality there are a number of simple changes that could save it from a bloody extinction.

The first challenge is to recognise that the long list of Train to Gain reforms introduced by the Government to increase demand and supply was never going to be affordable. Top of this list was fully subsiding all employees at level 2 regardless of prior attainment and funding level 3 "assessment only" qualifications with rates as high as pound;2,914 per qualification.

These changes have more than succeeded in driving up supply and demand, but leave a legacy of providers dependant on government funding and a programme characterised as free and without prioritisation, thus a free- for-all.

An affordable approach needs to be taken to prioritise both training and assessment for those employees in the vocational sectors who need it most. Train to Gain funding should be for learners without a level 2 qualification in their trade and only at level 3 where appropriate, such as in specific sectors. By prioritising the funding in this way, it would enable Train to Gain to be marketed as it was originally intended: a training and brokerage service that offers employers a broad package of subsidised and fee-paying support.

Train to Gain is not the only adult training budget that could be described as bust. Demand for apprenticeships for those aged 25 years or older has rocketed and figures published recently show that there were 54,700 starts in 200809, more than double the 27,200 in the previous year and 25,700 more than the Learning and Skills Council had planned for.

Given that apprenticeships are "the Government's preferred route to skilled employment for young people aged 16 to 24" perhaps those aged 25 and over should be funded through Train to Gain. In return, Train to Gain should only be available to those aged 25 years or older. Splitting employer-responsive provision in this way would simplify the offer to the employer and be a better solution than further reductions to the 25+ apprenticeship funding rate.

We can expect more bashing from the likes of Ofsted in the near future, and as the Government prepares to publish its latest white paper, its future hangs in the balance. What seems clear that if it is to be rescued the funding urgently needs to be prioritised in order to end this unaffordable free-for-all and encourage employers to share the costs as well as the rewards.

It should also not go unreported that there have been significant indirect benefits as a result of Train to Gain. It has enabled many colleges and training providers to engage with new employers, many of whom now work together to identify vacancies and train the unemployed to fill them.

  • Nick Linford, Special adviser on funding and performance at Edexcel, and author of `The Hands-on Guide to Post-16 Funding'.

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