'If you want us, get on and use us'
Funding chiefs have given thousands of training companies fresh assurances that they will "open up the market" to allow them to compete directly with colleges under the Government's skills strategy.
Mark Haysom, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, said he was heeding a plea from the Association of Learning Providers to give easier access to its members.
Addressing the ALP conference in Harrogate, Mr Haysom said: "We have to work with all of our suppliers in an area to deliver quality provision.
Importantly, we have to open the market up to all providers."
Graham Hoyle, the association's chief executive, made the plea to the LSC last week in an FE Focus article on the eve of the conference. He criticised the way cash was "ring-fenced", excluding work-based learning companies from the market. This meant that they could only supply training programmes under contract from other suppliers, such as colleges.
At the conference, Mr Hoyle told delegates: "Work-based learning is the key to the delivery of the skills strategy.
"The ALP's challenge to ministers, the Department for Education and Skills and to the LSC is: 'Do you want us to deliver the skills strategy?' If you want us, use us," he said.
"We have got to be given more tools to offer a comprehensive answer to employers." Any provider who could demonstrate high quality training to the required specification should be allowed to bid for cash to deliver the panoply of offerings.
He pressed Mr Haysom on his pledge to "open up the market", but he questioned whether the promise would be delivered. "I believe he meant it, but there isn't the mechanism to do it," he said.
However, Mr Haysom in his speech to the conference went further than ever before. He said a new business strategy and action plan should make life easier for training providers and help to bring closer the open market they are seeking.
"Through this new annual cycle of stock-take, planning and action, the LSC will ensure educational and training provision becomes increasingly demand-led, responsive, and aligned to the needs of employers," he said. It would give organisations the opportunity to influence local and regional planning and to make informed decisions on local needs and priorities. "It would help training providers exploit gaps in the market and enable new providers to clearly understand what they must do to bid to enter local and regional markets. "So the business cycle framework should help you plan your future growth, to spot new opportunities and plan resources for your existing product lines," he said.
"The LSC, in order to meet the needs of employers and of individuals, needs things from you in return; responsiveness, quality, flexibility and active engagement with employers. If we can both deliver, then we can do business."
Alan Johnson, the minister for lifelong learning, told the conference there was growing evidence that training providers were offering "inspiring learning" with an increase in achievement rates and inspection results, plus the fact that 17 work-based learning providers have been awarded beacon status.