Work: what they want, they really really want

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Good attitude, writing and oral skills matter as much today as ever, says Sheila Drury, post-16 supremo for Wales. James Sturcke reports.

Pearls, Jaguars and Aston Martins are a passion for Sheila Drury, chairman of Education and Learning Wales, the Welsh post-16 education funding body.

While Mrs Drury's fondness for pearls is easy to see, her connection with the cars is less expected - she used to design them. In the mid-Seventies she and her husband started an electronics firm from what she describes as a cupboard in Surrey. By 1990 it employed more than 250 people in north-east Wales.

She talks with a smart accent and in a bouncy fashion which wouldn't be out of place on the set of Calendar Girls."We were four men and a dog when we started," she says. "We moved into the automotive sector and designed the electronics in the dashboard for some of the fanciest cars on the planet.

"At the time we started our venture there were few packages of support and it was uphill. You had to really want to be an entrepreneur and fight your own battles."

She added those skills to the ones she gained in her first career as an English and drama secondary teacher in an era, she points out, when there was no national curriculum and teachers had freedom and responsibility for designing the content of their classes.

She says: "Even at that stage I went out to talk to employers about their needs and what they expected from people, and that had an influence on the curriculum I was designing.

"Some of the things the employers were talking about in the early Seventies were the same things that came up in the Future Skills Wales survey.

"They were complaining about young people not having written and oral communication skills; team-working skills and they emphasised the importance of having the right attitude. Those things haven't changed."

That Future Skills Wales survey came out last October, the week before 56-year-old Mrs Drury started in her pound;50,000 three-day-a-week post.

The ELWa, which has a pound;500 million annual budget and is accountable to the Welsh Assembly, was also reeling from a damning auditors' report about the body's overspending.

She took over as a series of fundamental reforms to Welsh post-16 education were coming into force. Separate funding streams for sixth forms, FE and the four pre-ELWa TECs were combined into one. She quickly became embroiled in a fire-fighting exercise to allay press fears of sixth-form closures.

A Welsh Baccalaureate, which aims to increase student choice through a points system, was introduced at the end of last year, which she says is generating much excitement among students and tutors while also admitting it will cost more than off-the-shelf tuition.

Sorting out the skills gap is a priority. Her philosophy is getting people together, working at grassroots level (she talks about nuts and bolts regularly), matching demand and supply, and keeping bureaucratic burdens to a minimum.

She says: "Employers really do value training for their workforce where they have an influence in the content of the training.

"The key issue is that there should be input from both sides. Employers who cease to be involved because they are too busy to talk to providers in the end stop getting the education they want.

"Developing the demand is very important. It seems to me big employers traditionally have a culture of training. The issue comes with a very large number of smaller companies in Wales. I've been a small employer. Their first task each month is to pay the wages.

"They have problems finding the time and money to release workers. We are encouraging sectoral collaboration. As soon as you get groups of companies coming together there is inter-company stimulation and the group can agree what training it needs as a sector and we can make the link with local providers."

She wouldn't be surprised if students turn to further education to avoid university-induced debt and expects they will want to work with day release for training.

New credit-based progression routes, coming in with the credit and qualification framework, will require a re-education for employers, she admits, but believes firms will benefit from training increasingly being offered in bite-sized chunks with credits being transferable between courses.

Since taking up her post, she has announced a review of work-based learning to find out if it meets employers' needs, and has encouraged closer links with sector skills councils.

She adds: "I have been a teacher and I was an employer. In the last 10 years I was asked by the then Welsh Office to get more involved in the public sector. I've been a governor of an FE college. I know what it is like to be an employer searching for the right skills and wanting to develop the framework. "The job is an enormous privilege. We are trying to wrestle with a number of complex factors. The key, as always, is the nuts and bolts. How are we going to get the money we have got to go as far as it can and serve the policies of the Welsh Assembly?

"We need to work with employers and learning providers because we are not going to do it on our own. There is a moral case for doing that. We are letting people down in Wales if we do not maximise the budget for the benefit of all our post-16 learners."

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