Editor's comment

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Skills, skills, skills. Yes, at last, it is replacing education, education, education as the Government's mantra. Wherever Charles Clarke speaks - from a press reception for his new ministerial team to the Association of Colleges jamboree - he says: "Skills are now our top priority."

Chancellor Gordon Brown, in his pre-Budget speech, hailed a new skills revolution, and Tony Blair is said to be so enthused by the issue he wants a White Paper to launch a concerted attack on the skills gap.

Treasury sources, in advance of the pre-Budget statement, were suggesting this was the first skills revolution. Such initiatives are always the first. Across departments, incentive-based, it will focus on employment needs.

But weren't we offered exactly the same by the Tories when the then industry secretary Michael Heseltine wheeled out the six big departmental guns to review and improve skills? Then, promises dissolved in a yearly round of self-congratulatory White Papers while the skills gap grew.

Why? Because employers refused to pay. Meanwhile, colleges charged with providing the training needed were subjected to year-on-year "efficiency savings", that most cynical of euphemisms for "cuts".

Things are different now and there is more ground for optimism. Colleges have had record budget increases, though not enough to repair the damage done in the "efficiency" years. Also, the Government's employer training pilots (ETP) proved powerful in persuading companies to train their staff and to provide programmes for underachievers.

Unfortunately, government schemes from the New Deal to the ETP programme have raised expectations in private industry that the state will pay.

Before, they typically would have to pay pound;50 a week to take on a trainee, but now the state pays them pound;50.

The cost of a national roll-out of the pilots could not be met by the taxpayer. A culture change to convince employers to pay much more is still needed.

Of course, the pilots were about more than cash. They created new ways for employers to find relevant training and were very effective in extending level 2 (GCSE equivalent) to all adults in the pilot areas.

The new skills revolution will test both the effectiveness of such pilots and the willingness of employers to invest in the training that colleges and others have to offer. The revolution must not fail this time, or legislation to compel employers to train staff will be the only option.

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