Gloves off over 'one-sided contract'

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Training providers take on 'aggressive' Learning and Skills Council with joint show of hands. Ngaio Crequer reports

THE Learning and Skills Council has been accused of high-handed action, aggressive and confrontational policies, and a refusal to listen.

The attack was made by work-based learning providers at their first annual conference last week. Speakers questioned Bryan Sanderson, chair of the pound;8 billion quango, over the way contracts were drawn up. They also said that some local LSCs were operating a cull of small providers.

Nick Rowe, of training company HCTC, said the LSC was its biggest partner but "our relationship is memorialised in a contract that has very few aspects of partnership about it.

"It is one of the most one-sided and controversial contracts that I have ever seen."

Mr Sanderson said such views were subjective. He asked the meeting, organised by the Association of Learning Providers at the NEC in Birmingham, who shared that view. About two-thirds of the audience raised their hands.

"Clearly we have a problem," said Mr Sanderson.

He said it emanated from a top-down culture, which the LSC had largely inherited. He urged providers to take up any issues with their local LSCs and demand change.

But Mr Rowe insisted the problem was with the national LSC, based in Coventry. Speakers said they were frustrated because the LSC seemed to want to reduce the number of training providers, but it was not clear what the rationale was. Some providers with good inspection grades were under threat.

Michael Henderson, who runs IPS International Ltd, a medium-sized training company in Rochester, Kent, said he had been very disappointed by what he had heard.

"I have been involved in national contracts and we have talked to the LSC and have had a flat refusal to change these aggressive clauses," he said.

"The LSC imposes excruciatingly tight deadlines on providers and almost inevitably the response from the council is late, and they muck up operations we are trying to pursue."

But Mr Sanderson retorted: "You don't like change. We have set up a body which provides an efficient service but you cannot expect it is not going to affect what you do. We will continue to drive for high quality and, if you do not like that, I'm sorry, but we are going to do it."

He said reducing the number of providers had become standard practice in business because of the demands of technology and speed of delivery.

"That process is happening to you as well. We have to manage it as carefully as possible, and to be as non-confrontational as possible," he said.

Afterwards, delegates said Mr Sanderson had been poorly briefed.

Valerie McKay, of Nottingham Engineering Training Association, said: "We just want a contract that is a partnership, and not something given to us that we are forced to sign, take it or leave it."

Ian Ferguson, deputy chairman of the Modern Apprenticeship task force, said MAs were a huge part of government policy. He predicted the age limit of 25 would go. He hoped that key skills would move away from a separate classroom test and be restored to work-based training.

David Sherlock, chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, said it was unhelpful that success was measured in different ways in schools, colleges and work-based learning, with the measure for MAs being the toughest of all.

He said: "It does not seem sensible, for example, that if an employed apprentice moves to a better job and has to stop training for a while, this is recorded as a failure."

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