Gagged by the DFEE

8th September 2000 at 01:00
The problem with working on the task groups set up to assess local training needs is that the people serving on them feel frustrated: there's a mountain of work to be done before the handover to the local learning and skills councils next April, but the impression they get is that Whitehall doesn't want them to do too much.

The experience has been frustrating, according to Penny Sanders, deputy chief executive of the Manchester training and enterprise council. "We'd been quite optimistic about how much the task groups might achieve because there's a huge amount to be done before April," she says. "I'd hoped, and I think the whole of my board had hoped, that the task group would have made some meaningful progress."

The real cause of the group's frustration has been the Department for Education and Employment. "They don't actually seem to want the task groups to do very much. There was a whole long screed that came out from the centre - it talked about the mapping of provision, the mapping of the client base and so on. But it also went on to look at more operational transition issues, like human resources, systems, IT (information technology) issues.

"And yet I get the distinct feeling that as time has passed, the DFEE don't actually want us to embark on that. I think most people who sit on that task group would probably concur with what I say - it's been a lot of hours in meetings to achieve not a great deal."

In Greater Manchester, there are six training and enterprise councils, a dozen FE colleges and 10 local authorities providing a range of adult and community education. Like task groups across the country, Penny Sanders' group was asked to map Manchester's education and training provision so that there could be a seamless transition from the training to the new skills councils.

She believes that insufficient work has been done to prepare for the organisational changes. "If the Government is serious about what it's said the (national) LSC will do next April - that it will have a new strategic plan and it will contract on the basis of a new plan - then, no, I think you would need a lot of work under your belt by now in order to do that."

The main remit for the task groups is to gather information as a briefing document for the new chair and executive director of each local skills council ready for when they take office.

Roy Bailey, principal of Tynemouth College in North Shields, is a member of his local task group. "It's been an interesting experience - that's the best way of describing it," he said.

Initially education providers were excluded from membership of task groups. But after protests from the Association ofColleges, most government offices, including that in the North East, changed their minds.

"What subsequently happened in the North East was that the government office, having capitulated on FE representation, more or less said that anybody who wants to be on the task group can be," said Mr Bailey.

"Immediately, private providers came along with two representatives, having been told they could have one. So the whole thing has been very strange. In addition to that, the brief has not been totally clear and the resource to achieve the brief has been even less clear."

Mr Bailey says that from the outset the task group was given only a few months to draw up its briefing. He believes the haste in carrying out the groundwork provides poor foundations for the local skills councils.

"The whole thing has been done at an incredible speed," he says, "and the consequence of that is that a lot of decision-making is being done on the hoof. The danger is that some of the decisions won't be as good as they might have been if they'd been thought about a bit more."

Nigel Burke is a civil servant who works in the Government Office in the North West, who has been chairman of task groups for Manchester, Cumbria and Cheshire. He said the remit is to produce data for the LSC nationally and a report for the new executive directors of local skills councils.

"What the task group is definitely not doing is taking any decisions which might be proper for the LSC or executive director to take," he says. "The task group is certainly not the basis of the new LSC. We have been very careful to say that this is not about creating an embryonic LSC."

This summer, local chairs and executive directors will have been appointed. The recruitment of local board members has also begun. Potential members have been invited to apply and appointments are expected to be finalised this autumn.

It is a huge process. In the North West they are expecting some 750 applications for around 60 places on five new skills councils. All applicants will be interviewed.

Will colleges be guaranteed representation on these councils?

Yes, insists Nigel Burke. "In choosing board members, we need to ensure that there will be a member who understands and works for a college, or has had recent experience of working for a college," he says. "The board has to be representative of these interest groups.

"One of the things that the Government is keen to see is that as far as the training providers, employers and colleges are concerned, that it's as seamless as possible. We don't want any learners falling through cracks. It looks as if we will be able to achieve that."

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