The general election campaign has brought the twin issues of the economy and skills training sharply into focus. There is widespread agreement that the short-term economic recovery and the long-term growth of the British economy depend on a robust skills policy. All of the parties have now laid out their vision for skills, but how do we ensure businesses and learners get a real return on their investment?
Each year, the Government spends billions of pounds on skills training initiatives, but it is clear that a lot of this money is being wasted on quangos, ineffective free courses and unconvincing new frameworks. With such large sums of public investment involved, it is vital our skills policies become more effective.
When judging skills policies, too much time and effort is currently invested in evaluating the process rather than what is actually important to learners and businesses: the outcome. Instead of getting bogged down in bureaucracy, we should turn our attention to measuring results. Gathering information on learner success rates, wage gain, organisational productivity and satisfaction levels would allow us to quantify the usefulness of a qualification to the employee and establish the benefit to business and the UK. It would also ensure that providers were offering quality courses that directly met employer, employee and national demand - making the qualification work harder for the investment and helping cut out unnecessary courses.
The imposition of the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) on training providers is a classic example of how the system invests in the wrong areas. The Association of Accounting Technicians has invested in excess of pound;900,000 in order to fit our qualifications within the QCF, but tangible benefits to learners are insignificant. This money could have been better spent on developing new qualifications and fine-tuning our current activity, bringing direct benefits to learners and businesses.
An effective and efficient skills sector also needs to have a more efficient foundation. There is currently a tendency among skills quangos to invest money in programmes that are implemented regardless of whether or not they work. There is also a great deal of inertia within the system, meaning we keep going "back to the future" and recreating existing bodies rather than finding the best solutions to the problems we face, the remodelling of the Learning and Skills Council into the Skills Funding Agency being a prime example. We have to stand back and look at what we need to achieve from skills policy and then create a foundation to support it rather than vice versa.
The creation of a single regulatory body taking into account the three sides of the "skills triangle" - employers, learners and providers - is one thing that would liberate and energise skills policy in the UK. The current network, with its overlapping responsibilities and duplicated roles, clutters up the system and acts as a brake on innovation. It is crucial that funding is linked to learners, either directly or through their employers - who would then be empowered to make the right choices based on business benefits.
Whatever the outcome after May 6, it is clear that the skills sector will have to get more from less. Yet this should not be seen as a barrier to progress but rather a spur. With less Government interference and less focus on process we can get better skills to more people, making them more employable so they can enjoy better outcomes for themselves, their organisations, and the UK.
Jane Scott Paul, Chief executive, Association of Accounting Technicians.