Pressure grows for overhaul of youth training
Last week's report on local economic development and training from the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee concluded that programmes such as Skillseekers are too inflexible and "volume-driven", geared to the achievement of as many Scottish or National Vocational Qualifications as possible.
"Training is not sufficiently focused on the needs of local areas and skill needs," John Swinney, the committee's chairman, said.
In its evidence to the committee's eight-month inquiry, Scottish Enterprise appeared to agree: "We recognise the need for greater flexibility to link individual aspirations with the needs of the economy."
The committee commented: "Given that local labour market conditions can vary markedly throughout Scotland, it may be that there is more justification for flexibility in locally delivered training, including that delivered by the local enterprise companies (LECs), than some other areas of economic support.
"There would also appear to be a case for developing good local labour market information."
One of the most frequent criticisms, the fact that Skillseekers can only take courses leading to SVQs, has been endorsed by the MSPs in their unanimous cross-party report. Scottish Enterprise accepted this is too restrictive and confirmed that the main reason is that it allows performance to be easily measured.
The committee criticised this example of "crude quantitative performance criteria". Its report added that the restriction of Skillseekers to SVQs, which are delivered by training providers under contract to the enterprise companies, "leads the further education colleges into direct competition with LEC providers".
Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, did not comment in detail on the findings, but promises a response before the summer recess when the results of the Scottish Executive's review of the enterprise networks would also be announced.
The report did not reach firm conclusions on lifelong learning although MSPs suggested it is also "congested" and uncoordinated, with too many competing organisations and too many initiatives.
Mr Swinney commented: "We have entered the debate on local skills training and lifelong learning more tentatively because we wan to explore the issues in greater detail."
The report states: "This is a complex field and one which will be significantly affected by a number of imminent initiatives whose shape is not yet clear."
Nevertheless the committee has already concluded that "the need for a clearer map of services and providers is evident if consumers are not to be bamboozled".
The report points to a whole host of initiatives, including the work of the 71 national training organisations, the New Deal for 18-25s, modern apprenticeships, and future developments such as individual learning accounts, local learning networks and the Scottish University for Industry.
The committee's lifelong learning inquiry will have the benefit of a major in-depth study being conducted for the Scottish Further Education Funding Council into supply and demand for FE, which will encompass all providers. The report is being compiled jointly by the Centre for Research in Lifelong Learning at Stirling University, Napier University and the Scottish Further Education Unit.
Mike Osborne, professor at the Stirling centre, would not be drawn on its findings but said: "It is to everyone's advantage that there is more co-ordination and rationalisation of provision."
The committee is impressed by the Fast-trac model of Skillseekers in Fife which pools funding for employer-based and college training. "The initiative has much to commend it and the employer model is certainly more customer-focused than the standard arrangements for Skillseekers training elsewhere," the report states.
It acknowledges that it might be difficult to replicate the scheme in other areas with different labour market conditions. But it suggests that such an approach could be implemented nationally within the local economic fora which the committee wants to see in each of the 23 LEC areas.
Despite the tentative nature of the committee's conclusions, Tom Kelly, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, welcomed the "equal status" with economic development which he suggests the report has bestowed on lifelong learning. Its findings are in line with Mr McLeish's recent admonitions that colleges should strengthen their links with business, local authorities and enterprise companies.
The ASC will now be pressing for FE to be given the lead role in managing and delivering training at the local level, Mr Kelly said.