Why I am hoping for major advance

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Manufacturing sector skills chief Michael Sanderson on his wish-list for the imminent Skills White Paper

I must declare an interest in the White Paper, as chief executive of one of the new sector skills councils - for science, engineering and manufacturing technology.

We are a new type of body licensed by the Government but owned and managed by our industry sector with a responsibility to represent employers' views on education and skills issues, and then to try to do something about them.

Dealing first with Modern Apprenticeships, I fully endorse the need for simplicity, and hope that the bureaucracy can be stripped away from this important initiative.

To achieve this, I hope that the White Paper will alter the need for key skills to be gained by external assessment, and allow them to be achieved as part of a relevant national vocational qualification or technical certificate.

Employers in my industry who spent much time in 1994 designing a Modern Apprenticeship framework relevant to them are very unhappy with the "template" system of modern apprenticeship design, introduced by the Learning and Skills Council.

They regard this as very restrictive in the essential combinations of NVQs and technical certificates that it allows. In engineering, employers regard it as essential to allow access to level 4 (degree level) within the framework, but the current LSC template does not allow this.

It is also essential that the proposed modern apprenticeship diplomas are not hijacked by the LSCs but are awarded by the SSCs, thus ensuring that employers continue to control this important initiative.

Clearly a key part of the White Paper will be funding, and I hope it will recommend that England follows the example of Wales and Scotland, by introducing the idea of public funding support for adults over 25.

It is vital to understand the enormous loss of human potential caused by the reduction in funding of apprenticeships for over-18s and the elimination, in England, of funding for those over 25. The White Paper will not be successful unless some support is given to adults seeking to upgrade skills later in their career.

Employers respond most positively to evidence of success in other companies, so the options supporting the development of networks to address skills issues are also likely to be well-received.

In this context, it is also important to promote collaborative arrangements between employers to raise skills and productivity.

Within the engineering industry the creation of group training schemes (membership-based organisations, usually registered charities, which provide small firms with training support, including management of modern apprenticeship schemes) has helped the sector sustain its training involvement.

I fully support the Government's commitment to strengthen the links between higher education and employers. The Government's aim to expand the participation in higher education from 43 per cent to 50 per cent can probably best be achieved by the further promotion of foundation degrees.

My organisation, SEMTA (the sector skills council for sciences, engineering and manufacturing) is working with employers and higher education institutions to develop routes from advanced modern apprenticeships to work-based foundation degrees.

Employers in my industry were a bit worried by the emphasis given in the progress report to young adults with poor basic skills. Many would prefer a focus on "in work" learning, where the individual is motivated to attend, complete and value the training by their involvement in the workplace.

To continue to spend large amounts of public money on basic skills up to level 2 (five GCSEs or equivalent) for individuals who are not motivated to learn, while other areas (such as advanced modern apprenticeships for adults) are ignored, I find controversial.

Clearly those with basic skills deficiencies must be helped and priorities maintained but every effort should be made to ensure this does not compromise the competitiveness of our country. If we are to contribute to improving the nation's productivity by re-skilling and up-skilling at all levels, we must ensure that we focus on all levels and that funding is targeted not just at the disadvantaged but also on those in work who employers are prepared to support by investment in training.

I am optimistic that the White Paper will offer a major step forward. It has been written with a wide degree of consultation with industry, and I am cautiously optimistic that it will make a real contribution to improving UK productivity.

Dr Michael Sanderson is chief executive of SEMTA, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technology

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