Skills pledge to match needs

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Minister outlines Scotland's response to demand that Britain must raise its game to stay world class

THE SCOTTISH Executive, no doubt mindful of the ongoing political spats between Westminster and Holyrood, has pledged to play its part in the work of the new UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, told last week's annual conference of the Association of Scotland's Colleges: "We promise we will work co-operatively and constructively with the new skills commission."

Ms Hyslop told college leaders the executive would be devising its own skills strategy for Scotland, as outlined in The TESS last week. "It will be a Scottish strategy for Scotland's distinctive needs," she said. As forecast, Ms Hyslop said FE colleges would play a key role in the strategy, due to be unveiled in the new government's first 100 days. She spelt out their particular contribution: gearing up school-college links; addressing literacy and numeracy demands; increasing knowledge exchange to enable FE expertise to help small businesses; and providing training opportunities for all young people.

The skills strategy will be Scotland's response to the UK Leitch report on skills, which warned that Britain had to "raise its game" at all skill levels if it was to achieve a world-class skills base by 2020.

The initial response, set out last week by Alan Johnson, the Education and Skills Secretary in England, was less detailed than expected. It is thought Gordon Brown, Prime Minister from next week, wants to wait and make an impact with the Leitch report, which he commissioned as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So far, all that has been announced is the setting up of the skills commission -to be chaired by Sir Michael Rake, who is international chairman of KPMG - and the fact that 150 employers have signed a "skills pledge" to train their staff.

The pledge - a promise to support staff in developing basic numeracy and literacy skills and achieving level 2 qualifications (the equivalent of five good Standard grades and GCSEs) - has been signed by companies employing 1.7 million workers. But there are concerns that, besides some high-profile businesses such as fast-food giant McDonalds and defence contractor BAE Systems, many of the employers signed up so far are part of government or the education system, such as the armed forces. Some have few staff without the level 2 qualification.

Gordon Brown told business leaders who were assembled to hear the announcement: "It's a measure of the importance we attach to building our skills in this country that so many of our country's biggest companies are represented today.

"I want to thank you for your commitment to what is the central test over the next few years - building a strong economy by building the skills of the country."

The pledge is voluntary and there is no mechanism for enforcement. But Richard Lambert, director general of the CBI employers' organisation, said his members would ensure that more of their in-house training leads to accredited qualifications, to demonstrate the investment they make in improving skills. Further pressure on employers to sign up to the pledge came from Sir Digby Jones, the UK's skills envoy, who said it would be crucial to make sure smaller companies took part.

He urged big companies to put pressure on their suppliers and contractors to sign up to the pledge. He added: "They will sign it if they think they will lose your order."

McDonalds, which is keen to shake off its dead-end "McJob" image, launched an online employee training programme last year with government funding.

It has 1,480 staff studying maths and English and 1,000 of them are expected to gain qualifications this year.

Although the Leitch report and the new skills commission have a UK scope, the devolved governments' duties are unclear. The announcement from the Department for Education and Skills last week stated clearly: "This press notice relates to England."

The Association of Scotland's Colleges said it hoped to meet Sir Michael Rake to discuss the skills agenda in Scotland. It acknowledged the importance highlighted in the Leitch report "to raise urgently achievements at all levels of skills throughout the UK."

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