The last shall be first

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Skills minister Ivan Lewis wants reform in the post-16 sector to direct the bulk of resources at those in greatest need. He spoke to Ian Nash.

Ivan Lewis has set himself an ambitious goal: to establish a training market within three years that responds to the needs of employers and individuals. Such a demand-led market has been the Holy Grail of Labour's learning and skills strategy since it came to office in 1997. Central to his aim is to give independent training providers more scope to bid for government grants.

He knows the frustration of many providers over what they see as a too gradual reform that leaves them to play second fiddle to colleges. But he makes no apologies: "Much of our resource is tied up with policies in Success for All, which challenged colleges to be more responsive and gave them more stability for a time. It's a matter of finite resources."

That cash is not expected to grow much in the near future, so two things are needed to satisfy the demand-led market. Employers and learners must meet more of the costs. Second, organisations that bid for cash must show "responsiveness, quality and value for money".

He adds: "In future we will be less interested in the nature of providers and more in their performance in responding to the market. Whether college or private provider, it will be the capacity to meet these criteria that will determine who the Learning and Skills Council does business with."

He states the Government's aim to direct cash to the most needy: "The bulk of resources will go to the 'no-skilled and low-skilled', which means an entitlement to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) training for all adults who lack it," he says.

This was a minimum, not an upper limit, and local LSCs, with their regional development agencies and sector skills councils, could push it higher. "We will extend it to level 3 (A-level equivalent) where there's a sectoral (specific industry) or regional market failure," he says. "We will also take it to higher qualifications if necessary."

Yet the employer or individual must consider footing part of the bill.

"But, having hooked them back into learning we must support them to level 3 and beyond," he says.

Crucial to his basic skills strategy is Entry to Employment (E2E), the scheme to rescue young adults not in education, employment or training. It offers a wide range of training and is big business for providers. Yet many say lack of cash is forcing them to turn thousands away.

But Mr Lewis offers them a word of reassurance: "I am in discussions with the LSC," he says. "This is wrong from the social justice point of view - no young person should be left behind. If a course is unsuitable, we must find alternative provision."

Despite these concerns, Mr Lewis reckons the Government has the framework in place with "the cumulative impact of the basic skills entitlement, a powerful offer developing for the workforce - with employer training pilots and the trade union learning fund - and a vision for the economically inactive through a new deal for skills.

"I do not pretend we have a demand-led system yet, but we are on a journey and my aim is to get there in three years. Providers should also look to 'tailor' learning - bespoke packages for employers and personalised learning for adults. The best are doing that already. This is an area in which we have a lead on schools. For adults, personalised learning with individual support has been happening for a long time. In schools, it's only just beginning.

"Employers and adults will pay towards their learning beyond the basic entitlement if they are offered high-quality material."

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