Not on the nine o'clock news

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Why is skills policy so seemingly uninteresting to anyone outside the myriad groups, committees and agencies charged with delivering it ?

On the anniversary last week of the Government's first-ever cross-departmental skills strategy, I climbed out of bed with a spring in my step. Could this be the day, I thought, when the education story of the moment would be all about our "Cinderella sector"?

Alas, it was not to be: an education story did indeed command top billing in the news bulletins. But it wasn't an in-depth discussion of the Government's 55-page progress report from the national skills alliance.

"Blair to break with the comprehensive model", screamed one headline, "200 city academies to be created" stated another.

Only Number 10, of course, can really answer this question, but what is the point of having an anniversary highlighting progress in one part of education in England, if the same day, the Prime Minister makes a major announcement about another?

Now granted, on the doorstep, people are more likely to discuss how to get little Janet into her local top performing "grammar" than they are employer training pilots. But nevertheless this was still the best chance - perhaps for a whole year - for the media to highlight that "lost generation" of school pupils who are now grown up, in the workforce, and badly in need of skills training or a second chance at education.

So what about the skills strategy? Its launch last year year was met with wide acclaim. I was in a minority who were sceptical of an approach that appeared to rely too heavily on allowing yet more fingers into an already overcrowded skills pie.

The plan for a national skills alliance, although welcome, carried the obvious danger that the strategy would get bogged down in programme boards, advisory groups, and piecemeal initiatives.

To some extent the report suggests, this has happened: "Much of the work undertaken in the last 12 months has focused on building the infrastructure to deliver," it says. "We are not at the stage of being able to demonstrate full achievement of the end results which employers and learners are looking for."

That is not to say that some fairly major things have not been achieved.

More people than ever are accessing basic skills courses as indeed young people are gaining apprenticeships.

Employers and learners seem to be more satisfied with FE than ever, and for the first time adults in the workplace are receiving free support and both subsidised or statutory time off to train. Trade union learning is re-shaping the bargaining agenda.

The jungle of the qualifications structure is getting simpler. Employer-led sector skills councils are nearly fully established, helping to improve business performance by sector.

Each of these key policies has been a considerable success, culminating in the Secretary of State recently announcing an extra pound;130 million to help meet demand and avert a funding crisis.

But the challenge for the skills strategy is that in most cases it is hard to fathom whether these developments are a direct result of the skills alliance.

Perhaps the most significant development of the past year in skills has occurred away from such a formal arena. The appointment of an "outsider" to lead the Learning and Skills Council is a bold recognition that the LSC and the sector it supports faces yet more radical change.

In a very short period of Mark Haysom has moved the council away from endless internal processes, unfathomable jargon and developed a clearer more accountable management structure.

This has helped create a new atmosphere in which anyone working for the LSC now feels not only a growing sense of pride but also more confidence in the day-to-day interactions with providers.

Maybe skills policy can indeed be exciting, even if the public and broadcast media have yet to agree.

Alan Tuckett 4

Tom Bewick was a political adviser to ministers between 1997 and 2002. He writes in a personal capacity

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