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A timely pause for taking stock

Assessing the progress of the Learning and Skills Council is like stopping for a rest as you climb up a high mountain. It is only when you pause for breath and look back into the valley beneath that you realise how far you have actually come. I find it strange that in the public sector, we rarely seem to celebrate or reflect on success achieved. With the advent of a white paper for further education and the LSC's fifth birthday, now is a good time to look at the distance travelled by the council - indeed, the whole of post-16 sector - since 2001.

Success means different things to different people; but taking the Government targets as a measure of success, we have an enviable track record. The statistics speak for themselves. More young people in learning than ever before - some 1.5 million of 16 to 18-year-olds - more achieving than ever before as we expect to exceed our 2006 target one year early for the number of 19-year-olds achieving a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification. We have beaten our target of 175,000 young people starting apprenticeships; and there are more young people completing apprenticeships than ever.

For adults, we also have a good story to tell: we have beaten our target for Skills for Life with 1.25 million people improving their basic skills.

There are more adults achieving level 2 and level 3 (A-level-equivalent) qualifications than ever.

Of course, targets are not an end in themselves, but they measure progress towards our goals. We are convincing more young people that staying on in education and training is the best option. Around the country, I have seen some amazing examples of collaboration between the LSC, local authorities, colleges and schools providing innovative vocational learning opportunities for 14 to 19-year-olds.

The quality of learning is improving too. Success rates for FE and work-based learning has increased by more than 10 per cent since we were set up, and less than 4 per cent of colleges are now considered to be inadequate compared with 20 per cent at the birth of the LSC. As we have been hitting our targets and driving up quality, we have also been investing heavily in the future. In the last two years alone, more than 200 capital expenditure projects totalling pound;1.3bn have been approved.

More than half of the FE estate has now been renewed.

We are making real headway in improving the skills of the workforce too. I was delighted to see the results of the 2005 National Employers Skills survey which shows that England's skills gap has halved - from 11 per cent of individuals to 6 per cent in just two years. The number of employers claiming to have a skills gap in their business fell from 22 per cent to 16 per cent. Of those employers that reported a skills gap, 74 per cent had increased the amount of training given to their workforce.

These are fantastic results for individuals, for business and for the economic success of the country, giving us a great platform on which to implement Train to Gain - our new flagship service for employers. Train to Gain will play a major part in helping us to increase further the number of adults gaining a level 2 qualification - another key priority for us. In the first year alone, we are expecting to help more than 40,000 learners achieve such qualifications.

We achieved all of this while driving down our own administration costs.

Since it was established in 2001, the LSC has saved the sector some pound;50m operating costs each year. In addition, agenda for change - the transformation programme for the sector and for the LSC itself - will save a further Pounds 40m a year.

I am not going to pretend that everything in the garden is rosy. We still have a daunting challenge ahead. As we know by looking at the issues in the interim Leitch report on the skills needed for the year 2020, the mountain gets steeper the further we climb. These issues need radical, ambitious solutions, not only to ensure that we have enough individuals with intermediate and higher level skills, but that provision is available for the most disadvantaged groups too. Everyone - whatever their background - must have the chance to succeed.

It is a privilege to be chairman of an organisation that has achieved so much in such a relatively short period. I am also proud of an organisation that has so many unpaid "non-executive" volunteers who challenge, support and champion our ambitions.

The forthcoming white paper for further education, will, I am sure, help us to increase the momentum further as we continue our journey. We have a long way to go, but let us not forget that the LSC - together with the post-16 sector - has much to celebrate too.

Chris Banks is chairman of the LSC

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