Leading lights in work-based learning sometimes accuse me of being too optimistic about how the sector can do more for the national skills strategy.
Sure enough there will be delegates at next week's annual conference of the Association of Learning Providers who feel the running of publicly-funded training programmes is still failing to match well-meaning policy initiatives. All of our members will be hoping to hear from new ministers that the Government is serious about recognising the role of independent providers in helping employers to improve skills.
The jury may still be out on whether my optimism is misplaced, but the past year has seen two substantial areas of progress. The first was the success of the employer training pilots and recognition of the major part played by ALP members in bringing about their success.
Second, the Government has been talking up the importance of apprenticeships to the extent that on the first weekend of the general election, we had the Chancellor correcting the Prime Minister in a joint newspaper interview over the new target of 320,000 apprentices by 2008. The problem is that the increased demand for apprenticeships and completion rates calls for extra money from the Learning and Skills Council when it faces major challenges in funding its commitments.
Intense lobbying by the ALP recently secured an extra pound;38 million to help meet demand, but the money came with strings attached. The strings have prompted the association to seek legal advice on whether the LSC is breaching its contract with providers.
The LSC is in a tough position. Rightly in our view, ministers want a national skills strategy led by the demands of employers and individual learners. The growing demand for apprenticeships is stretching the LSC budget for work-based learning to its limits, and is already pressurised by the popularity of Entry to Employment as the main pre-apprenticeship training programme. This means that either the Government must find more money for the LSC, or the LSC has to switch resources from its other budgets.
Whatever the outcome of the LSC's immediate financial challenges, some hard-nosed decisions must be taken about post-16 education and training provision in the next few months. The Foster review of FE will be a pivotal part of this process, probably resulting in even greater encouragement of colleges to be more responsive to the needs of local employers.
But, as Sir Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said recently, the market should decide which providers it wants to use, and public funding should be open to all good-quality providers.
This principle was aspired to as far back as the Learning to Succeed white paper in 1999, but little progress has been made on it since then. Yet where there is evidence of it, what a difference!
The employer training pilots are examples of more open funding, with firms often choosing work-based learning providers for their training to produce a great return on their investment. The Adult Learning Inspectorate has praised independent providers' involvement in the Skills for Life programme, suggesting government targets for improving adult basic skills could be achieved more quickly by increasing learning provision in the workplace. Despite these success stories, the LSC has been reluctant to contract directly with independent providers for the introduction of a new programme for a first level 2 qualification for adults.
The foot-dragging must stop. At the ALP's conference last November, we expected the skills minister to announce a protocol backed by the LSC and the Department for Education and Skills for opening up the learning supply market. But it did not happen.
In March, another skills white paper reaffirmed the need for a demand-led funding system to drive the skills strategy forward. I remain hopeful that it can be achieved, but we need commitment from ministers that change is afoot. Tough choices must be made, but as political leaders asked us to make a major choice yesterday, we have the right to expect the same from them.
Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers