Learning and Skills in the UK – An Introduction

Learning and skills is a generic term for the plethora of organisations, initiatives and services involved in improving the skills of the UK workforce. The government is providing most of the financial investment but employers and trade unions are also heavily active in this area. However, it is very difficult for the uninitiated and even insiders, to keep up with the activities of all these different stakeholders. Learning and skills even has its own terminology – do you know your LSC from an SSA or even a ULR? How about the NIACE or the SSDA?

The sheer complexity of learning and skills services has resulted in the establishment of another specialist niche service known as Information, Advice and Guidance, with its own acronym, IAG. Moreover, not a week goes by it seems without another government White Paper, pilot project or publication on learning and skills. Perhaps the difficulty lies in the fact that no one has yet decided who is responsible for training and educating the UK workforce.

Should it be the responsibility of the state through the education system at tax payer’s expense? Or perhaps employers should bare the burden of training – after all they profit directly from the skills of their workforce? How about the workers themselves? Maybe they should take responsibility for their own professional development and employability – no one can count on a job for life any more.

Learning and skills has become a high profile issue which is engaging a variety of organisations and stakeholders including trade unions, employers and Sector Skills Councils. Whilst the UK has a strong economy, productivity is trailing compared to our key competitors and poor skills is one of the reasons why. For example, over one third of adults in the UK do not have a basic school leaving qualification and five million people have no qualifications at all.

The current Blair administration, and its predecessors, have grasped the skills mantel and have also identified links between skills, economic growth and equal opportunities. Good employers have always valued and invested in skills, and trade union membership has historically conferred the benefits of access to training and education.

Meanwhile, Sector Skills Councils were set up by the government to promote and encourage skills acquisition across 25 industry sectors. Learning and skills is one of those rare issues where traditional protagonists share a mutual interest – after all skills are good for employees, good for industry and good for the economy.

Let me now take you on a brief tour of the learning and skills landscape in order to sketch out the main players, and nail some of the more unwieldy acronyms. The trade union movement, of which UNISON, Amicus, T&G and GMB are the largest members, is headed up by the Trades Union Congress known as the TUC. Historically, trade unions have been vociferous in demanding greater access to education and training and still today membership benefits include access to subsidised, if not free, training opportunities.

In 2002 the government finally passed legislation giving legal status to ULRs (or Union Learning Representatives if given their full title). The relevant passage is covered by Section 43 of the Employment Act 2002. Within two years the TUC estimated that ULRs had empowered 100,000 people to access training in their workplace in one year.

Given this success, trade unions are now campaigning for the legislative right to include training in negotiations with employers, mandatory training levies and further statutory powers for ULRs. They are also seeking further influence on Sector Skills Councils, or (yet another acronym) SSCs, and support for more prescriptive learning agreements.

However, whilst trade unions are effective at campaigning for improved learning resources in the workplace they have yet to really exploit the potential of learning and organising. This represents a golden opportunity for trade unions but they have been slow to realise it. In the meantime the establishment of Unionlearn, the new trade union learning academy, may help convince more senior union officials of the value of learning and skills, and learning and organising.

Unionlearn is funded by the Department for Education and Skills, the European Social Fund and the TUC, and its three main priorities are to help trade unions become better learning organisations. It intends to do this by helping unions carry out a range of learning and organising activities including brokering learning opportunities for members, establishing a kite mark quality standard, researching union learning priorities and promoting learning agreements.

This includes increasing the number of ULRs from 14,000 to 22,000 by 2010. Unionlearn will also take over operation of the Union Learning Fund often referred to as the ULF. This fund was established in 1998 to help unions play a greater role in promoting learning and organising in the workplace.

Sector Skill Councils, or SSCs as they are also known, are independent, employer led organisations which cover a specific industry sector. Their specific aims are to cut skills gaps and shortages, improve productivity, business and public service performance, expand opportunities to boost skills and productivity, and improve learning supply through apprenticeships, higher education and National Occupation Standards – or NOS for short.

These 25 SSCs form the backbone of the Skills for Business Network and are licensed by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Together they cover around 85% of the UK workforce. Industries not included in their remit are covered by the Sector Skills Development Agency. This agency, also known as the SSDA, is a non departmental body which funds, supports and monitors the work of the SSCs and collates high quality labour market intelligence.

Although SSCs are employer led they have at least two seats on their Board of Directors allocated to trade union officials. Each SSC is required to draw up a Sector Skills Agreement, or SSA for short, in collaboration with other stakeholders such as government departments, the SSDA, trade associations, employer bodies, the ULF, Unionlearn, and learning organisations. This agreement sets out how the SSC will address the skills gaps and challenges posed by their particular industry.

In addition to the key players mentioned previously there are vast number of other organisations linked with learning and skills. These include qualification authorities, learning delivery organisations, brokering services, economic development agencies, further and higher education services, government departments and funding agencies. It would take far too long to list all of these organisations and their relevant acronyms in this article but there are a few you should be aware of.

First of all there are the Regional Skills Partnerships, or RSPs, which have a regional responsibility for improving skills; and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) which is responsible for regulating qualification standards, and also the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, or NIACE for short, which is a charity dedicated to helping adult learners. Another important organisation to be aware of is the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) which funds vocational education and training.

The government has launched a number of initiatives, strategies, proposals and pilot projects all designed to increase relevant skills in the UK workforce. These include two White Papers which form the cornerstone of its national Skills Strategy. The second White Paper, entitled “Getting on in Business, Getting on at Work” was published in March 2005 and further developed a strategy for expanding the UK skills base.

In February 2006 the government published a Further Education White Paper, entitled “Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances”. This latest White Paper takes forward recommendations made by the Foster Review and has also been produced by the Department for Education and Skills. The Foster Review was an independent review into the future role of Further Education colleges and took place in November 2004.

The Further Education White Paper recognises the importance of these colleges and the need to strengthen the role of the sector by focusing on employability and learner progression. It also recognised the role of trade unions and Unionlearn, included a £20 million per annum skills package for women, outlined plans for free tuition to first full level 3 qualifications for 19 to 25 year olds and proposed bringing forward the national roll out of an Adult Learning Grant. I should point out here that level 3 qualifications equate to A-Levels, NVQ 3 and Advanced Extension Awards.

Further White Papers are likely to be announced when the results of the Leitch Review are published later this year. The Leitch Review was commissioned by the government to identify the UK’s optimal skills mix in 2020 in order to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice. An interim report has already been produced but the final version will not be ready until summer 2006.

There are two other important skills initiatives that should be mentioned in the course of this speech. The first is Train to Gain. This is a new service introduced by the LSC aimed at enabling businesses to find relevant training services for their workforce. It will be introduced across England in 2006 and was originally known as the National Employer Training Programme (NETP) but rebranded in early 2006. Train to Gain includes free brokered training for employees without a level 2 qualification (such as GCSEs or NVQ 2) and will trial some subsidies for level 3 and level 4 (or diploma level) qualifications.

Meanwhile in March 2006 the government published its second round prospectus setting out proposals for a network of 12 National Skills Academies by 2008. The first four national academies will be established in construction, food and drink, manufacturing and financial services.

Of course what is yet to be seen is how this extremely diverse array of services and organisations will operate in partnership with one another, and to what extent there will be unnecessary duplication. Hopefully, however, the alliance of traditional adversaries namely trade unions, employers and governmental organisations will produce significant results that will benefit individuals, businesses and the economy.

Copyright 2006 Rowena Slope (Redkite Research)

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