Show us your business plan

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Sponsors are reluctant to hand over hard cash for the new national skills academies. Martin Whittaker reports

The first wave of the Government's new national skills academies are expected to launch this autumn with significant financial backing from industry.

But with months to go, the programme has still secured little hard cash from employers.

Of the four industries developing the academies - financial services, construction, food and drink and manufacturing - only one, financial services, has so far produced a business plan. The proposed national financial services skills academy needs to raise an initial pound;3.5 million from employers. But although its plans are the most advanced, so far it only has one pledge of pound;250,000 on the table.

Semta, the sector skills council for manufacturing, says it is only just starting to formulate its business plan, due to go before the Learning and Skills Council in June. It said the launch of its skills academy may have to be delayed.

"We did expect that, at the end of the business planning process, it wouldn't take very long to get into delivery of the plan," said Philip Whiteman, chief executive of Semta. "But it looks like it will."

He said it could take up to eight weeks for the LSC to consider the business plan, which, with summer holidays, could hit the academy's launch date. "I think that might have to be put back," he said.

The skills academy programme is a linchpin in the Government's bid to improve training for workers. Skills minister Phil Hope said: "The national skills academy programme is ambitious. It requires employers to influence and invest in the system to secure a step change in skills levels and productivity."

The Government aims to have opened 12 academies by 2008. It wants academies to head networks of specialist colleges and private learning providers, with employers in key roles shaping the training. The prototype, the fashion retail academy, opened to students last September and is sponsored by the Arcadia Group, Marks Spencer, Next and Great Universal Stores (see story right).

Sponsorship funding is crucial to the programme. However, the Government will add pound;7.5m to the pound;3.5m the financial services industry is trying to raise.

Teresa Sayers, chief executive of the financial services skills council, said it has attracted 25 companies. She is asking for each sponsor to put in Pounds 250,000 which will secure it a seat on the academy board.

"We have one firm cheque on the table," she said. "The difficulty is, if you're asking a company to give you what is, after all, a sizeable contribution, they need to have a business plan."

Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, said some of the UK's manufacturers have joined forces to back its skills academy bid. "There's a huge appetite for this skills academy," said Improve commercial director Paula Widdowson.

Its plans involve Grimsby institute of further and higher education and Reaseheath college in Cheshire. But whether it launches in September depends on gaining pound;1m a year for the next three years from employers.

Ms Widdowson said no employer has written a cheque so far. "We have lots of conversations happening. I've got several 'Nos', but I've got twice as many considering and looking at it."

The LSC said employer sponsorship is crucial to the academies' success, and it will be looking for evidence of commitment in the initial planning stage.

Jaine Clarke, the LSC's director of skills strategy and planning, said:

"I'm not necessarily wanting to look in their bank account at that point, but we will want firm commitment from employers."

If any of the skills academies are not able to launch this autumn, will it be an embarrassment for the Government?

Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South and chair of the all-party skills group, said: "I think it will be a setback if we don't have any up and running.

"On the other hand, and this is where ministerial nerve comes in, far better to have a slight delay but then a product which is demonstrably impressive and effective, and engages the attention of employers and employees."

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