Editor's comment

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Few close readers of government documents will find much new in the coming skills white paper. The idea of industry-led sector academies was mentioned in the original skills strategy. Chancellor Gordon Brown's pre-budget report in November stressed the need for greater investment in the advanced and higher-level skills the country now desperately needs. And the five-year plan last autumn emphasised the need to create a national programme from the successful regional Employer Training Pilots (ETPs).

What is new is not the detail but the emphasis. Industry will be asked in no uncertain terms to put much more cash and support in kind into the system. Time has come to take action. If there is to be no return to training levies (emphatically ruled out yet again in the white paper), employers must be more transparent in showing how they are tackling the skills crisis.

For example, a benevolent industrialist may be able to buy status and kudos with an academy in the schools sector for a mere pound;1 million (with the taxpayer footing the other pound;20m or so). But ministers make it clear in the white paper that they want matched funding - possibly tens of millions - for one of the 12 new 16-19 academies proposed. Nor can industry expect a continued free ride when, in less than a year from now, the training pilots become a National Employer Training Programme. Business must be seen to work with colleges and others to tailor schemes for their needs and pay a fair rate.

So, we will find new measures emerging, with regional development agencies coercing and issuing edicts at higher and degree levels of training, and local learning and skills councils working below them to encourage more education-industry partnerships.

But does this all really add up to the need for yet another white paper? These papers used to be powerful statements signalling legislation. Michael Heseltine changed all that as employment secretary for the Tories in the early 1990s when, he created the annual competitiveness white papers. These were little more than self-congratulatory annual progress reports.

The latest draft of the coming white paper reads similarly. It does little more than reiterate the recent skills consultation document and congratulate the Government on getting new quangos up and running quickly.

It is a laudable analysis of what needs to be done but does not really explain how it is to be achieved.

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