Thursday, December 22, 2005

Skills Industry

For at least a century British governments have been obsessed by our supposed "skills gap". Addressing it forms a key part of Gordo's Productivity Programme, with £9bn pa of taxpayers' money being dished out through the Learning And Skills Council. But a recent National Audit Office report gives a rage-provoking insight into the whole business.

The spending is justified primarily on economic grounds: "up-to-date skills are essential if employers are to maximise their productivity". Yet, as the report reveals, despite all that money, public provision of skills training- largely delivered through further education colleges- remains unappealing to most employers.

And it's not because they don't believe in training. In fact, Britain's employers are estimated to be spending well over £20bn a year of their own money on it. No, 'the main reasons cited for not making more use of publicly funded training is perceived lack of relevance and flexibility of courses to companies’ training needs, perceived cost, and the image of college staff as academics rather than business-focused trainers.'

Instead, employers go for internal training, and commercial providers:

'Private training companies have a number of advantages over further education colleges, which make it unsurprising that they are the natural choice of many employers:
  • they understand, or are perceived to understand, the needs of business better;
  • they usually specialise and develop expertise in one area, and gain a lot of experience in tailoring their particular expertise to different companies’ needs;
  • it is a well established part of their culture to ‘sell’ their product by helping employers to see its benefit to the business;
  • they are not expected to respond to government and community priorities unless they choose to tender for Learning and Skills Council programmes.'

Well that all sounds fine. The private providers do what the customers actually want (rather than what the Learning and Skills Council thinks they ought to want), the employees get training that's fit for purpose, and the employers pay for it. Why doesn't government just get out of the way, and save us taxpayers £9bn pa. Brilliant.

Ah. It turns out that the Learning And Skills Council and the further education colleges aren't keen on that approach. So much so, they've come up with an alternative rationale.

Forget skills training. The real need for tha £9bn pa is to put right the grotesque failure of our schools to teach everyone the 3Rs:

'England has a large number of adults without this minimum skill level. Unless this problem is addressed, it will continue to have a serious impact on the pool of labour on which employers are able to draw...The Department therefore considers that there is a clear rationale for focusing public subsidy on improving the literacy and numeracy skills of adults and supporting them to gain a first qualification.'

And that's the blunt truth: the government's "skills" programme is largely required to remedy the deficiencies of our state schooling system.

Now, if only we had some more private training providers at the school-age level....

Picture: Paxman History Pages


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