Work-based learning providers will gather their autumn conference in Hinckley next week wanting to believe that the Government's latest skills strategy will provide a springboard for growth in training.
The main challenge is to turn the rhetoric into reality. The Association of Learning Providers (ALP) members have been frustrated that the worthy aspirations behind the Learning and Skills Act have remained unfulfilled for too long, as government departments and the Learning and Skills Council have continued to view post-16 provision in terms of watertight compartments, with the availability of funding and development opportunities governed by the provider's status rather than by employer choice and the quality of provision.
ALP wants, however, to emphasise the positives in the White Paper taken alongside the recent 14 to 19 and higher education papers. We applaud the recognition of the importance of creating a more effective and employer-driven training market supported by a much more coherent and equitable funding system to enable providers of all kinds to build more effective relationships with employers.
We also welcome the acceptance of the need for much more effective cross-government collaboration, particularly between Department for Education and SkillsLSC and Department for Work and PensionsJobcentre Plus.
We are encouraged by the introduction of new strategic policy development and co-ordination mechanisms at both national and regional levels in which ALP looks forward to playing a strong and constructive role. To further support this, ALP will be seeking at its conference to develop its existing regional groupings to offer an authoritative provider voice to work with regional development agencies and local LSCs on the strengthening and delivery of regional strategies.
A key driver behind the White Paper is the Chancellor of the Exchequer's determination to rectify Britain's patchy productivity record. ALP has successfully impressed upon the Government that, for most of its members, employer engagement represents their core activity. It is what they do.
Ministers have at last taken this point on board, for example, by opening provider access to government funding in respect of delivering basic skills into the workforce. A major workshop to encourage ALP members to deliver the Government's Skills for Life programme will launch this new initiative at next week's conference.
Modern Apprenticeships are fundamental to the skills strategy's success and if ambitious targets are to be achieved, three vital issues have to be tackled.
The first is the quality of Careers Education and Guidance (CEG) in schools for young people of 14 and over. This requires urgent attention and, in particular, action to raise substantially the significance of CEG within the Office for Standards in Education inspection framework.
Second, the extension of education maintenance allowances seems certain to further encourage young people to stay on at school or go to further education regardless of whether those routes or work-based learning would be the most appropriate for them.
And finally, while we have no argument with the Government on equipping young people with key skills, our suggestion is that, instead of making key skills a mandatory element only in Modern Apprenticeships, they should be made mandatory for all routes and urgent work should take place to introduce a greater element of flexibility and responsiveness in the testing arrangements.
Other key items on ALP's agenda include the recognition of the "distance travelled" by learners, many from a very low starting point.
We will also want to develop our existing provider sector groups to align them with the emerging SSCs, offering them the responsive provision their employers will demand. There's certainly plenty to keep us busy over the coming months.
Graham Hoyle is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers (www.learningproviders.org.uk)