New FE minister hails 'beginning of the end' for Train to Gain

4th June 2010 at 01:00
In his first interview since taking office, John Hayes waves goodbye to Labour's flagship project and promises more apprenticeships than ever before

John Hayes, the new minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning, has pledged to provide the largest number of apprenticeship places in history out of the ashes of Train to Gain.

In his first interview since taking office, he says Labour's flagship skills project is experiencing "the beginning of the end", with 200 million diverted this year for other programmes, and indicates that almost all its funding will disappear over time.

"Train to Gain in the form that we've endured it in recent years is over," says Mr Hayes. "We will look at it closely to identify those areas we need to retain. We'll present those in a way which is more cost-effective, accessible and more likely to lead to progression. And we're going to have more apprentices than we've ever had before while I'm the minister."

The Conservative party has long been critical of Train to Gain, arguing with some justification that much of the work could have been paid for by employers. Mr Hayes also singles out the 112 million spent on the brokerage system as wasteful, a view that is shared by many providers.

Apprenticeships, on the other hand, are tried and tested in providers' view, and well-understood by employers. But with apprenticeships for 16- to 19-year-olds, which make up the majority of places, struggling to hit their target recruitment numbers in the recession, there is some scepticism about how quickly they can grow.

"We had an initial target of 100,000 more and we will reach that," Mr Hayes says. "But 50,000 as an initial start - given I've only been here ten days - is not that bad."

Smaller businesses are set to be offered bonuses of 2,000 to hire apprentices as an incentive. It is not clear where the funding for this will come from, however, raising the possibility that money earmarked for provision could end up as payments to employers.

"When you take on an apprentice as a business, you don't get much payback at the beginning," he says. "You start to get a return on your investment once the trainee is adding value to the company. I want to look at the funding, how we can skew the funding to make that process less onerous for the companies."

He also says the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) is more optimistic about the number of trainee places than might be thought, given the current slow rate of recruitment, and that the NAS believes there is real demand from small businesses to be tapped. But what Mr Hayes most wants to talk about is FE's escape from the Con-Lib Government's 6 billion cuts, with its 16-19 budget from the Department for Education also to be maintained.

"That's absolutely great, superb, fantastic news that FE did not get cut - far from it, the money is being kept within the FE system," he says. "And in line with college expectations, and indeed the conversations we've had with business and others, it's going to find its way into the apprenticeship budget. Great news for colleges, learners and for business. There are few sectors that can make that claim."

That decision could prove critical in establishing the new Government's credibility with FE. For all the complaints about Labour's bureaucracy and the fiasco over capital, it remains the case that colleges and training providers were much better funded over the last 13 years than they were before Tony Blair won power in 1997.

Now the Tories and Lib Dems can plausibly argue that they are prepared to match that level of investment, and that FE is being treated on a par with schools in terms of maintaining the 16-19 budget. Mr Hayes claims it is a priority at the very highest level for his party.

"When David Cameron appointed me to this job he made it very clear that he saw skills as a priority that he wanted me to drive through," he says. "It's because we are, as a Government, wholly committed to the connection between training and economic recovery. What we do in this department is critical for growth; this is the department of growth. This Government must provide new opportunities for training, cut the number of people who are disengaged and bring those people back into economic activity."

So while elsewhere in Government cuts are being discussed almost with relish as a mark of commitment to fiscal responsibility, FE has remained a surprising last bastion of Labour's spending commitments.

For Mr Hayes, this is no paradox. "I didn't come into this business, this job, not to defend and promote the interests of what I hold dear," he says. "That is vocational education, the importance of training and skills, the beauty of craft."

But that is a quaint way to describe the modern world of FE: is "craft" really the word for the BAE Systems apprentice being trained to oversee the development of billion-pound aircraft, or the sports scientist or the veterinary nurse?

It is also the language of the tripartite school system in which Mr Hayes grew up - he attended Colfe's Grammar School in Lewisham, south London, just prior to it becoming a private school during the move towards comprehensive education in the 1970s. He dispenses literary and historical references freely, perhaps partly as a legacy of his PGCE in English and history. "Could you make me look like William Morris?" Mr Hayes jokes to the photographer.

Morris, of course, was not only a central figure in the arts and crafts movement, but a fervent socialist who wanted to "destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities". That might be a bit of a stretch for the chair of the Conservatives' most traditional wing, the Cornerstone Group (motto: "Faith, Flag and Family").

But one test of the newness of this "liberal Conservative" government will be whether it shores up the distinctions of class between colleges on the one hand, and schools and universities on the other, or works to dispel them.

`Well-intentioned but with flaws': the sector gives its verdict on a disappearing scheme - and its checklist for the future

It was Labour's big idea for skills: Train to Gain, a programme of free workplace training that eventually commanded nearly 1 billion a year. Lurching between under-recruitment and over-subscription, criticised for pushing out private investment with public money, it still reached thousands of people who never before considered gaining new skills. As FE minister John Hayes confirms that Train to Gain's days are numbered, FE Focus asks colleges, training providers and businesses what they want to see from its successor .

Susan Anderson, director of education and skills at the Confederation of British Industry

"Though well-intentioned, the Train to Gain programme had some significant flaws. In particular, there was a mismatch between what business needs and the support available, with too much focus on accrediting basic skills and not enough on the higher-level skills that will help boost competitiveness.

"While we very much welcome the new Government targeting resources on apprenticeships, some support should be retained for other types of business-focused training, such as NVQs. Employers value apprenticeships but they will not be appropriate for everyone."

Alison Birkinshaw, principal of York College

"We have found the Train to Gain programme a really good way of providing high-quality training for employers, particularly those who hadn't engaged with training previously.

"We also valued the opportunity to work with employers to meet their literacy and numeracy needs in a way that did not stigmatise the employee.

"Our experience with the brokerage service when this was lodged with us was also positive and our team was very successful in meeting all their targets and ensuring that employers seeking training were signposted to appropriate providers very quickly. However, we lost the brokerage to the Regional Development Agency in the recent restructure and do not have a clear idea of the way it is operating currently.

"Of course, we recognise that Train to Gain did have its teething problems but we should now work hard not to lose the positives of the programme in any new reconfiguring of employer provision."

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges

"Many colleges have pointed to weaknesses within the Train to Gain scheme. However, there are some elements worth preserving - in particular, the very positive contribution to basic skills education that Train to Gain courses have made - that haven't been addressed in this week's announcement.

"We hope to see that contribution preserved, in tandem with continued support for the work that colleges do with employers through the effective delivery of apprenticeships."

Lynn Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of leading colleges

"In a time of severe cuts it is important to continue government support and focus on improving employer engagement and encouraging its financial contribution to training, particularly for employees who might not otherwise participate in skills development.

"Train to Gain did enable many employees to improve their basic skills and to enhance their workplace contribution and satisfaction. It also facilitated creative and leading-edge college partnerships with employers.

"I believe John Hayes will generate new incentives, freedoms and curriculum flexibility for colleges and employers that will ensure maximum impact and contribution to economic recovery and productivity.

"Colleges are flexible and responsive - we are keen to deliver the `chunks' of skills that employers want as well as full qualifications."

Alan Tuckett, chief executive of Niace, the adult education body

"The things we want to keep are: provision for older workers, 45-plus, which was a Train to Gain strength; provision for people in small- and medium-sized organisations with no previous history of training; and literacy, numeracy and (English for speakers of other languages) provision in the workplace.

"We don't want deadweight - which might halve the budget - or to pay multinationals or other large companies that should meet their own training costs. Nor do we want assess, assess, assess-based work.

"All provision should be co-funded: employers meet 25 per cent of costs in year one, 50 per cent in year two, 75 per cent in year three and 100 per cent after that. Employees should have a say about what is offered and supported by the state, and part-qualifications should be possible."

A spokeswoman for DIY store Bamp;Q

"In our experience Train to Gain has been beneficial to employees of all ages at Bamp;Q and has met the diverse needs of the people undertaking NVQ training and apprenticeships within our business. In the last year, we have seen 12,500 of our staff achieve an NVQ retail level 2 with help from Train to Gain funding.

"We recognise the need for the Government to review the current skills agenda to ensure it is fit for purpose. But we believe that any reform should ensure funding remains available to responsible businesses such as ours, enabling us to allocate funding appropriately to benefit all our employees.

"We would also welcome funding to help us develop the new skills that will be required to drive the green economy, and we would hope that the Government will create a climate in which retailers are actively encouraged to recruit and train this generation of employees.

Bamp;Q has already embarked on this process, having recently launched training for its new eco-advisor and expert roles."

Paul Warner, director of employment and skills at the Association of Learning Providers

"We would like the Conservatives to stick to what they proposed last autumn - that some of the Train to Gain funding should be switched to the `Work Programme' to give unemployed people basic skills training in order to increase their chances of sustainable employment.

"With a flexible approach, providers could offer training to help find a client a job, or they could work in partnership with the client's employer to offer training once in work. We potentially have a real opportunity to see proper integrated employment and skills provision being introduced. And by giving unemployed people basic skills, considerable medium- and long-term savings to the taxpayer could be realised."

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