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Uncertain future calls for a broader skills base

Sir Andrew Foster, no doubt with the painful experience of trying to improve the NHS at the back of his mind, concluded that the FE system needed reform but not revolution. Managers and staff, weary of being transformed, will have breathed a sigh of relief.

Those involved in the Leitch review may agree with Sir Andrew in principle, but the increasingly adventurous tone of recent speculation suggests that "one more heave" may be on the cards before the FE system can look forward to generations of stability and its place in the sun. It now seems a safe bet that an enhanced role for at least some of the sector skills councils will be among the recommendations.

The past two decades have been an age of "priorities". Since incorporation, FE has been successively re-engineered to give priority to markets, efficiency, widening participation, 16 to 18-year-olds and quality. Old priorities may never die, but they fade as new stars take centre-stage.

This is the dawn of the age of skills.

And that's no bad thing. It is clear that for years the adult skills agenda has been marginalised. The national priority given to funding for 16 to 18-year-olds meant less was left over for adult skills, and enrolments have plummeted. Government claims that nothing of use was lost were given short shrift by the recent education and skills select committee report.

The problem is more with the non-priorities, or "ought-to-be" priorities, which often go unnoticed until it's too late. The role of employers in shaping the skills agenda is increasingly accepted, and SSCs provide a convenient mechanism for representing employers' views. Representative structures such as these are well placed to help in determining the generic skills competences common to large numbers of larger employers. For those in employment, things can be very different. Anyone who tries to work with employers soon realises that, once in work, there are different needs.

There are problems in trying to "predicate and aggregate" skills in detail.

I recently attended a presentation by a respected economic forecasting unit which opened with the health warning: "This is a forecast, therefore it must be wrong!" Wise words in a globalised world where industries can relocate or spring up overnight, wreaking havoc with any attempt to predict the future in all but the broadest terms.

In such a scenario, the broader and transferable aspects of education - creativity, adaptability, social skills - assume even more importance. Not a great time for a narrower focus only on immediate skills needs and priorities.

Many SSCs have recognised this and there is a strong case for strengthening their role. Any new arrangements should be broad and flexible enough to take account of the wider purposes of education and training. As steps are taken to increase the employer voice at national level, it should be matched with equal concern for freeing up the ability to respond locally and quickly so that the needs of individual employers can be addressed.

John Stone is director of the Learning and Skills Network

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