· 9 min read · Features

Publicly-funded skills bodies - Who does what

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How well do the numerous bodies that look after skills present their wares to employers, and are they as co-ordinated as they could be? Peter Crush speaks to some of the main protagonists.

Learning and Skills Council (LSC)

Chris Banks, chairman of the LSC, admits his organisation has been in the firing line - "there is a lot going on, and a lot of change to come," he admits - but he defends the body, saying it is becoming more responsive to "what employers want, rather than what's available in the qualifications system". He adds: "We're pleased sector skills councils (SSCs) are in the driving seat, identifying which qualifications employers are really interested in. Employers have raised concerns that there are too many courses that are similar. Every SSC is now in the process of developing a sector qualification strategy. If we're going to be demand-led, we need to know what employers are saying."

According to Banks, the course streamlining process will give an even greater role to the National Employer Service - the network of brokers that advises businesses free of charge on their skills needs. He says 80% of businesses are satisfied with the advice they get, but admits employers will have to be more willing to trust the information given. "No one wants complexity for the sake of it," he says, "but the SSCs will have to work hard to transfer this desire for fewer qualifications."

Banks says the LSC's response is to extend the National Employer Service, by promising a dedicated account manager to all businesses with more than 5,000 staff. "This is our way of trying to make sure some of the wiring becomes invisible," he pledges. "An equivalent already exists for those under 5,000 through the Train to Gain initiative."

However, nothing clearly stays still in the skills landscape for long. No sooner will SSCs have whittled down its 'fit for purpose' courses than they will imminently need converting to what is being called 'skills credits'. Will this create yet more confusion?

"A Qualifications Credit Framework comes into force by 2010," explains Banks. "It will be a new way of looking at skills whereby all training courses will be converted to credits so that people can build them up at their own pace. It will happen between 2008 and 2010. From 2009 we'll turn off funding for courses deemed to be of too low quality, and from 2010 we won't fund any new enrolments outside the Qualification Credit Framework."

Banks denies bosses will be forced to convert what x number of credits equals in terms of A levels or skills levels 2,3 or 4, and says that for the first time in years staff will be encouraged to continue training because they can see that doing so builds up their score. "That's why we support employers accrediting their own training, as it is their way of recognising the learning that individuals have undertaken. The key is to ensure employers know the value of training being accredited." (Read more on employer accreditation on p20).

But the LSC's own future seems in doubt too. Last year a proposal was made by the Government to route skills funding through local authorities instead of the LSC by 2010. In March a consultation paper was launched to see how this could be done. "The proposal is that the LSC won't exist, and separate funding agencies will be launched for child and adult skills funding," confirms Banks. From one agency to two - it seems the skills landscape is going to get more, not less, complex. Banks does not disagree: "We're setting up nine further sub-councils in the next few years - but only to ensure this process actually happens." Simplicity or over-complexity? Again employers must decide.

Sector skills councils

Sector skills councils (SSCs) represent the interests of 80% of employees (which is better than, say, Canada, where only 30% of staff are represented), although one notable exception is teaching, which employs more than 427,000, and until two months ago accountancy was also not covered. Leitch famously tarnished the 25 sectors skills councils, by saying that a third were good, a third were average and a third were not worth the public purse. Since then UKCES boss Chris Humphries says much has improved, but he'll be checking to ensure they offer employers good value for money. Here we look at the work of two SSCs.

Skills for Health

Skills for Health (SfH), the sector skills council for the National Health Service, is in charge of the framework of the UK's largest group of employees (some two million), a group that includes dentists, general medical doctors, pharmacists and care home workers as well as nurses. Its remit is to develop and manage national workforce competencies across the UK healthcare sector.

According to the council's own research, the London region alone will need to replace 60% of qualified clinical staff, 68% of support staff and 67% of infrastructure staff by 2016 assuming a very conservative 5% turnover rate. It also found there was a need for new qualifications to match future new roles and competencies.

Statistics like these has meant it has been one of the leading sector skill councils since its official launch three years ago. "Our sector skills agreement seeks to look at what will be needed in the next 10 years," says SfH chief executive John Rogers. "This is a challenging task. Our industry has previously spent millions on cardiovascular surgeon training, for example, only for the invention of cholesterol-reducing statins to make this redundant," he says.

"The only long-term solution," Rogers continues, "is to ensure we have a flexible workforce that has the capability to upskill and retrain as and when it is needed. We're developing a sector qualification strategy that builds qualifications in a modular/credits gained approach."

As a result of this research SfH has found that there are two sections of the workforce that could be used to greater advantage - those at NVQ level 2 and 3; and those who would benefit from having greater literacy, numeracy and IT skills. The finding helped lead to the launch of the Joint Investment Framework in July last year - an agreement between Britain's strategic health authorities and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to guarantee £100 million of extra funding to fill skills gaps over the next three years, which will be used to fund apprenticeships, Skills for Life courses and other skills development qualifications at levels 2,3 and 4.

"These are real results that the likes of the UKCES will be expecting of all sector skills agencies," says Rogers. "For us this means 6,700 new level 2 and 3 trainees have started training in the Yorkshire/Humber region alone."

The funding is in response to SfH's Shared Skills Action Plan and has received further backing by the parallel launch of the Health Sector Strategic Alliance - a partnership between SfH, LCS and strategic health authorities to ensure the implementation of the joint investment framework happens at local level and is reviewed annually.

The skills frameworks being devised are also generating results - particularly in reducing hospital waiting times - a government-set target all trusts are required to hit by the end of 2008. Last year Manchester Children's University Hospitals NHS Trust decided to pilot how workforce-mapping based on SfH's recommendations could reduce waiting times and increase patient experience. It found that by looking at 'competencies pathways', and ways to unblock skills-deficient areas, particularly those among three clinical areas (clinical colonography, magnetic resonance imaging and radionuclide imaging), the hospital was further able to reduce its erratic 2-35 week waiting times and standardise to the 18-week target 12 months ahead of the national schedule.

Latterly SfH has also been at the forefront of developing a skills response to the Government's new national breast-screening programme. "It became clear that under the proposals, radiographers would have to spend 90% of their time just doing mammary scans to meet demand - which only uses about 5% of their skillsets that they'd spent four years studying for," explains Rogers. "We worked with the Society of Radiography and health trust HR directors to implement a new healthcare assistant role where those doing the scans were overseen by qualified radiographers, freeing up their time to use their skills in X-rays. The roll-out has gone national, and not only have patient care standards been kept the same, or even improved, but healthcare assistants now have a career path, while radiographers are also more satisfied at work. It's win-win."

Rogers says this is proof that its so-called 'sector skills agreements' with hospitals are working. So far the council has made 70 such agreements, each of which supports the provision of best quality healthcare and services through the skills of those working in the sector. Other outcomes of sector skills agreements include: an emergent sector qualifications strategy; an emergent sector careers framework; closer working relationships with education funding bodies; strengthened partnership work between major bodies and agencies; application of competency-based approaches to workforce transformation; and work to strengthen employer engagement.

Cogent

Cogent is the sectors skills council for the chemicals, nuclear, oil and gas, petroleum and polymers industries. Its head, Joanna Woolf, is pressing for vocational education reform and favours working with skills academies (see page 18). These bodies are part-funded through member businesses, and develop training accreditation and research into teaching effectiveness. So far Cogent has formed three academies and is also working with them as part of defining which qualifications are fit for purpose. "There has been a proliferation in the growth of qualifications," she says. "But we want industry-endorsed qualifications. We also want more transferability in qualifications, which is why we support the foundation degree route. Academies will endorse it through accredited suppliers. These suppliers effectively earn quality kite marks that will hopefully lead to a streamlining of skills training offered."

The foundation degree Cogent is developing is intended to be modular, so that while trainees may begin doing an apprenticeship, they can use that as part of what could become a Masters. "The vision thus becomes one of getting a highly-valued qualification that employers understand," she says.

Within this is a criticism of the further education system, which, she says "doesn't operate like this, something that is increasingly being seen as old fashioned". She adds: "Skills training has become more like the continuous professional development model. This is the way employers want training now."

The skills academies

These academies were launched officially in 2007 to help drive up standards in training delivery. They are funded by the Learning and Skills Council and regional development agencies for a period of three years, but the main aim is for them to become self-financing through the services they sell to member businesses. There are already 10 in existence, with three more in the pipeline.

Manufacturing

One of the largest academies is the Manufacturing Skills Academy, headed by chartered engineer Bob Gibbon. He faces a critical problem: the fact that the UK is ranked sixth in world global manufacturing, but only 11th in high skills development and 17th in low skills development.

Gibbon's response demonstrates how agendas seem to differ between the academies and the SSCs: "We're tasked with bringing new thinking to the skills agenda," he says. This means that at a time when most SSCs are solely focused on which training should be recommended from a content point of view, Gibbons is looking elsewhere: "We're less interested in the content, but how the training is delivered. We want content put across in a better way; we're looking at why trainers can teach the same subject matter but have such markedly different results."

According to Gibbons 50% of training investment should be put into analysing its effectiveness. He believes the current percentage is more like 15%. But is this focus of attention yet another distraction by an interested agency holding a specific view on skills? "There's content out there, but I think the problem is more about it being taught in the right way. We're trying to encourage companies to do skills audits first, then forecast the economic benefit of doing training, second. This is the only way companies become more informed about the positive relationship between learning and business performance."

He adds: "I understand that not all content is wonderful, but not all of it is powerfully taught either. In my view delivering content more powerfully is better than enhancing it. The next stage is to look at which 25% of powerfully delivered content is responsible for providing 80% of business results."

Such is this belief that the academy has developed a Quality Trainer Provider Scheme that is just about to be launched nationally, and ensures suppliers of training meet its requirements for excellence in training delivery. More than 150 have been through it, with some 350 currently on the scheme. The academy will also approve in-house trainers who run their own skills training.

Gibbons says he has the support of the likes of Airbus, GKN, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems. He adds: "The Government is starting to 'get' the fact that training isn't just about numbers, but quality. The fact business are being drowned by huge numbers of courses means there is a quality problem that needs addressing."

CASE STUDY: FORD UK

The 'it's not what you teach but how you teach' approach has particular support at Ford UK. Since the 1990s, it has run various skills projects mainly using the classroom-based approach to address literacy and numeracy skills. But according to Ford VP of government affairs Joe Greenwall, who also acts as a company 'skills champion', the traditional approach was not working.

"Skills shortages are a unique problem in our British plants - we just don't suffer this in the rest of Europe," he says "but we were finding staff were reluctant to talk about their particular needs when surrounded by colleagues."

In partnership with Business In the Community, Ford launched its own Skills for Life initiative that ditched the classroom in favour of one-to-one mentoring aimed at its 2,500 Dagenham employees.

Amy Lewis, Ford manager of change/learning and development, says: "Micro coaching takes workers off the line for up to 15 minutes at a time to work on specific areas that could help to improve their jobs. They work towards Skills for Life qualifications - equivalent to a GCSE."

Ford has had a £10.1 million grant from the LSC to help pay for the training. It demands evidence the grant has worked, and Lewis cites production efficiencies - such as production volumes increasing by a third - as just one measure of the training's success.

Since its launch in April last year 500 have gone through the training scheme.