Let us not lose sight of the real aim of Train to Gain

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Michael Woodgate

Nick Linford makes a valiant attempt to diagnose the problems besetting the ailing Train to Gain programme and suggests how it might be saved from what increasingly looks like an inevitable fate ("Don't let free-for-alls turn off Train to Gain", November 6).

However, any assessment of the worth and prospects of a government initiative such as this has to start by identifying what it is for, what it is designed to achieve, beyond the mere attainment of specific targets.

The "training and brokerage service that offers employers a broad package of subsidised and fee-paying support" that Mr Linford describes is only a means to a much bigger end that of increasing the productivity of UK workplaces by judicious investment in developing skills.

But if training and skills development really are going to have an impact on overall business performance, and consequently on the overall performance of the UK economy, certain conditions must exist.

First, the "training" has to be of the highest quality and delivered to people able and willing to benefit from it. Assessment-only programmes, or simply doling out qualifications to people who haven't got any, will not persuade employers that investing in skills should be viewed in the same way as investing in IT, buildings or equipment. The training has to be good enough for an employer to say, "I don't care that there's no funding, I want to buy some more of that." What proportion of currently funded learning passes this test?

Second, there needs to be clear identification of what the training is designed to achieve, where it adds value to an organisation and how that value is to be measured or evaluated. This requires robust analysis that identifies the impact that skills development could have on organisational performance, and then procures training specifically to have that impact. Too much Train to Gain training is currently procured because it's a necessity (we'd have to do it anyway), because it's a nice thing to do (we've signed the Skills Pledge), or because it's free.

Yes, Train to Gain brokers will carry out an organisational needs analysis, but how much of this is shared with the provider? Are impactreturn on investment measures identified and revisited after the event? And how much of broker and provider behaviour is driven not by the needs of the customer, but by the targets they are working to?

Third, there needs to be good-quality performance management in place that will sustain the improvements derived from learning, along with people able and willing to manage the performance of others, otherwise the money spent will be largely wasted.

The myth that skills development is only about training is distressingly ubiquitous. It informs short-sighted policies that focus on improving the supply, rearranging the funding and rationalising the "skills landscape", policies that by their failure to comprehend and address the whole skills development picture are bound to fail.

In its strategic plan, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills does take, to its credit, a broad, holistic approach to the whole issue of skills development driving economic growth. As well as the priority to improve the responsiveness of the employment and skills system, there are the two other priorities that focus on increasing learner commitment and raising employer ambition and investment.

The point is that all three of these priorities need to be addressed concurrently if investment in skills is going to have any lasting effect.

The idea that training alone will develop the skills this country needs to compete in the global economy is fatally flawed. By the same token, a government programme based on this premise is fatally flawed also and should be quietly put out of its misery.

  • Michael Woodgate, Michael Woodgate Associates.

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