Paper's chase for skills

11th July 2003 at 01:00
the Government's skills strategy White Paper has been long-awaited or much-dreaded, depending on whom you ask. Months of speculation ended on Wednesday when it was finally published.

Overall, the strategy tries to meet Gordon Brown's demand for a system that delivers a high-skilled nation. In his Budget speech, he said: "Nobody wishes Britain to compete on the basis of low pay, but on the basis of high skills, the right to education to 16 must be complemented by the right to lifelong learning."

The new paper says success will not be gained through piecemeal initiatives. The aim is to learn lessons from past failures. Joining up different parts of government, education and industry is at the paper's heart.

Proposals include new partnerships at national, regional and local level, reform of qualifications and training, an overhaul of courses at colleges and training providers and new funding for basic education for learners of all ages.

FE Focus, which exclusively revealed the main points of the paper last week, now looks at the detail. Consultation about the plans closes on October 31.

The White Paper, 21st century skills: Realising our potential, is available on


WEEKLY cash grants and free tuition will be offered to the underskilled of all ages to broaden participation in learning.

"We need to support learners in different ways, offering information and advice, making courses accessible, helping with costs and fostering support from their employers," the paper says.

It proposes a two-pronged approach to increase participation in education and training.

The first is aimed at adults.

The existing Skills for Life strategy is on target to have 1.5 million adults with better basic skills by 2007 (see page 43). However an estimated seven million working adults still do not have a level 2 qualification (five Cs or better at GCSEs or equivalent).

Now all adults studying for their first level 2 qualification, and those aged 19-30 studying for their first level 3 (two A-levels or equivalent), will get free tuition.

More crucially, however, they will also be entitled to a new allowance similar to the education maintenance allowance scheme for 16 to 19-year-olds. The allowance, which will be phased in from September this year, will offer a means-tested grant of pound;30 per week.

Basic skills, an umbrella term for literacy and numeracy, is to be expanded to include information and communication technologies.

Moreover, the maintenance allowance itself is being expanded. The scheme is designed to encourage 16 to 19-year-olds to remain in education by paying them up to pound;40 a week. It has been piloted in a third of the country's local education authorities, and will run nationally from September 2004.

But plans to replace the ill-fated individual learning accounts scheme have been scrapped.

The scheme, which gave subsidies to adults for courses of their own choosing, was closed down in 2001, after allegations of fraud.

The paper says: "We believe that the new entitlements to free learning, taken with the other reforms in this strategy, provide the essential elements which we previously sought to develop through the ILA scheme. The principles of the scheme are still widely supported and we are committed to sustaining those principles."

It adds, however, that there will be no ILA mark II: "We have examined carefully the lessons we must learn from the original programme and have concluded that there is no case for introducing another stand-alone ILA scheme, separate from the mainstream support for adult learning."


THE declared single aim of the White Paper is "to ensure that employers have the right skills to support the success of their businesses, and individuals have the skills they need to be both employable and personally fulfilled".

But, it says, British employers are not getting staff with the right skills. This means other countries' workers are far more productive.

"French, German and US workers produce between a quarter and a third more in every hour they work than their British counterparts," the paper says.

The challenge is to plug gaps in four key areas: basic skills, intermediate skills, maths, and leadership and management skills. A top priority is the low percentage of workers with intermediate, or level 3, skills (equivalent to two A-levels).

The paper pledges support, via the Sector Skills Development Agency and local learning and skills councils for skills at this level in areas of priority.

From September, a new, means-tested grant of pound;30 a week will be piloted for young adults studying full-time for a level 3 qualification.

But free tuition will be confined to skills agreed to be in short supply by local people and businesses. The paper says: "When people are better educated and better trained, they have the chance to earn more and use their talents to the full, both in and out of work.

The paper also hopes for spin-off benefits, referring to "strong evidence" that improving skill levels can cut unemployment, and crime and improve health.


A national "skills alliance" will bring together government departments, agencies and employer and worker bodies such as the CBI and TUC.

The paper says that too often different players have pursued their own objectives, without enough attention to shared goals . "As a result, programmes have too often looked disjointed, piecemeal and inconsistent."

The new alliance will be led by the Education Secretary and the Trade and Industry Secretary, and will meet four times a year. Each party will have to be prepared to compromise and do their bit. "There are some hard decisions that have to be taken, striking a balance between the interests and preferences of different groups."

Employers will be expected to sustain the "very large sums" they invest in training, providers will be expected to deliver training programmes that are of higher quality and "more responsive than in the past" to the needs of employers and learners.

"The Government will aim to support progression by all to higher levels of skills and qualifications," the paper says.

But it warns, learners who study for more qualifications at the same level as ones they already have or who take courses for leisure or personal development will pay more in fees. A new "national framework" for FE fees is proposed, though colleges will still have discretion.

But the fear is that many leisure and cultural courses will now wither on the vine.


THE Government has identified "a strong regional dimension" to the skills problem.

In each area of the country it wants organisations that help employers meet their demand for skills to "work more effectively with those who plan and fund courses".

Key partners include regional development agencies, the new Skills for Business Network (see below), the Small Business Service, Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council.

The paper says: "This will mean that in each region there is a strong connection between the skills needed to raise productivity by region and sector and the allocation of funds to training providers.

RDAs will take the lead in regional skills alliances that will help to set local priorities The White Paper says: "Provision of learning opportunities must respond to each region's skill needs. Our aim is to ensure maximum flexibility and discretion at regional and local level to innovate, respond to local conditions and meet consumer demands."


Central to delivering the skills employers want will be the Skills for Business Network, run by sector skills councils.

Each council represents a different industry, or related group of industries. "A key means of raising our game on skills is through the Sector Skills Council network," says the paper.

"We are on track to establish 23 Councils by summer 2004. The Councils will be a major new voice for employers and employees in each major sector of the economy."

The basic aim of the network is to ensure each industry can influence the way its workers are trained.

Individual SSCs will be expected to work with regional development agencies and other funding agencies to influence the shape of training and skills.

The Skills for Business Network will also work with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to review the qualifications available in each sector to make sure what is studied is relevant to the workplace.

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