Why training is hard to sell

11th February 2005 at 00:00
I have had the strangest week. I found myself agreeing with Chris Woodhead and being praised by the Office for Standards in Education.

Actually, it wasn't me they praised but the college I work in. Principals are prone to conflate the two. Dangerously unwise principals think they are responsible for everything good that happens in their institutions and that everything bad happens despite their best efforts and guidance. Sensible principals acknowledge the work of others and keep on wearing the body armour.

Some time ago Ofsted visited us on a special mission to seek out strange new life-forms known as employer engagement units and have just produced their report. We are listed as an example of good practice.

My balanced reading of it suggests that virtually everyone else is crap and we are wonderful and I have naturally shared this unbiased, considered opinion with the Learning and Skills Council, the governing body remuneration committee and just about anyone else I could get to listen.

My children could give seminars on it. Even my grandchild could bore you with the details and he isn't yet bothering much with sentences, as such.

Well, he's into sentences, but not grammar, so Chris Woodhead reckons he might just as well skip primary school and as a fatuously fond granddad, I agree with him.

Ofsted has said that this college is an egregious and brilliant example of how a college can worm money out of employers for training and we could therefore probably get pints of rhesus positive out of a pile of granite.

They don't put it quite like that of course, or too many people might read it, but if you read between the lines, definitely the best bits, you get the message.

We know, don't we, that the reason colleges get castigated by ministers and others for our alleged inability to meet employers' needs is not because we are incompetent, feckless organisations chasing the easy money in soft markets, but because succeeding in that particular field is like climbing Everest backwards and blindfold, bare-footed and with empty oxygen tanks.

Which makes our team the Sherpa Tensing of FE, I'm pleased to say.

So why is it so difficult? Well, for most employers, training is the ultimate grudge purchase. When 100 employers were asked what single thing would make the biggest contribution to their bottom line, only six even considered training.

Most of these 100 entrepreneurial risk-takers opted for a removal of all competition as their favourite option. Tell me about it!

Second, employers seem to have signed up totally to the myth that the minute a widget-turner's assistant gets a sniff of an NVQ he will be poached by the pirates in the firm of bottom-knockers across the road.

But fun though it is, it won't do to put all the blame on employers. It is possible to get them to agree that yes, a training session for some of their staff would not be too much of a risk and yes, it might improve productivity and yes, they could then pay their staff a bit more so that the evil bottom-knocker's advances would be spurned. And can they have the training free please? It is no good pointing out that they do not offer their products gratis on the open market and would not be trading long if they did. They see us as different animals who can survive on nothing because we have been doing just that for years. Most new government schemes to get employers involved in training offer it free. Some, like the much- vaunted Employer Training Pilot even pay the employer for releasing the staff. Ministers, I know you are aware, but let me say it again. If Asda paid customers to come shopping, not many would bother with Tesco. You don't wean a baby off the bottle by offering it a breast. Employers won't pay colleges for training they can blag off others free.

Nor is it easy to establish precisely what training an employer needs.

Getting this information invariably involves listening first to their well-researched thesis that standards have fallen and that school-leavers do not have the basic skills to be of any use in the workforce.

Back in 1929 an O-level meant something, apparently. Children would leave school at age nine ready for the workplace, merrily reciting their eight times table and parsing sentences as they scrambled up the chimneys with their little brushes. Eventually you arrive at a real analysis of needs only to find that they have one worker who needs this skill and one who needs another and neither is a full course leading to a qualification and neither attracts any funding from any source known to man. And can they have it by next Tuesday, free and on their premises on the night-shift, thank you very much?

Yep, it's a man's life in an employer engagement unit and to get the Ofsted accolade is quite an achievement. If you want to know our secret we are happy to help. What's that? You expect it free?

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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