No train, no gain

1st June 2001 at 01:00
II f you were in business and someone asked you, "Would you like to increase your profits?" you would be forgiven for looking slightly askance. The answer is obvious. Isn't it?

During the next few months, I will be travelling around the country and talking to business leaders at regional meetings about the importance of improving their staff training and increasing the skills of their workforces. Underlining this will be the impact that education can have on their bottom line.

In some cases, I will be preaching to the converted but in many others I will not. There are companies that offer first-class training and progression for their staff, and there are those that ignore it completely.

Small and medium-sized businesses are responsible for much of our economic growth, but many are guilty of believing that they are so small and "so focused on the bottom line" that they haven't the time to train their staff. They are missing a trick.

Recent research among small and medium-sized enterprises, conducted on our behalf by independent consultants, showed that companies spending as little as pound;50 a week more on training - and that for their entire workforce - increased their profits almost twice as fast as those that did not make the extra investment.

Once this message becomes clear, I am sure that businesses will embrace it. To be successful as a nation, we need to raise standards of learning all round. I have no doubt that successful modern companies have to educate their people in order to thrive.

As a new organisation responsible for all post-16 education in England outside of universities, the Learning and Skills Council faces many enormous challenges; not least among these will be to change the culture of our nation and its attitudes towards learning.

It is not only companies that need to realise the importance of this, but also individuals. It doesn't matter that you did not like school. Improve your skills now and it can help you build a better future.

By bringing more people into education for longer and to a higher standard, both in the classroom and the workplace, we can improve the economic prospects of this country as a whole. We need to match the needs of business with the training and education we provide.

I would argue strongly that we also need to strip out the unfair and unnecessary elitismthat now exists, whereby university education is placed on an entirely higher plane than that of Further Education and work-based training.

In fact, I question the usefulness of the distinction between Higher Education and Further Education altogether. If we can raise the prestige of the FE sector and encourage people to see this as a route up the ladder, then we will be making real progress towards our goals. No one questions the worth or prestige of a degree in medicine or law, and these are, for the most part, vocational.

There is no doubt that many people in Further Education feel neglected and undervalued and this feeling is bound to find its way through to their students.

I would like to lift people's heads throughout the entire sector, and increase their self-belief in order to make them realise just how important they really are. I would also like students, and their parents, to feel that taking a vocational route - learning and gaining qualifications while working - is placed on an equal footing with a purely academic qualification.

We are already taking steps towards pulling education and business closer together through the establishment of Education Business Link Consortia, which are being created now and which will work at local level to match needs.

These can have a profound effect on the attitudes and responses of young people towards learning, and provide a "real world" context for individual students, their teachers and businesses that participate.

We are now helping to form these consortia, in many cases linking some of the interested business and educational partners for the first time. Our investment of pound;23 million in this first year will be increased by funding at local level.

At the Learning and Skills Council, when we talk of a national culture change there is no exaggeration. This is a challenge that must be faced in the coming years with tenacity and a real sense of purpose.

It is essential that we improve the standing of Further Education and vocational learning, and that we rescue and bring back into learning the millions of adults who left school without basic literacy and numeracy skills; indeed, the this task is fundamental to the future success of the UK economy and to the society in which we live.

Bryan Sanderson is Chair of the Learning and Skills Council

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