Skills delivery needs to be more integrated - Stewart Segal
At the recent event organised by FETL, each of the speakers were asked to give their perspective on the symposium title ‘What Next for FE and Skills’? It’s always difficult to cover such a broad topic in 10 minutes, so you inevitably have to simplify a complex question into a simple answer.
It would have been easy to list all of the issues that the sector is currently facing with reducing government budgets and increasing demands from local and national structures such as LEPs and Combined Authorities. Of course you have to recognise those pressures are creating real financial issues for some training providers and colleges. Leaders in the sector have to acknowledge these issues but also have to see the opportunities that are inevitably there in a period of change.
It is difficult for leaders to see opportunities when today’s immediate issues are so challenging. There is not a lot of certainty on which to base long-term plans to take up the opportunities. It can be a scary place to be to set out a clear vision when so much is unpredictable. However with a focus on vocational routes, Apprenticeship targets and workforce development underpinning productivity improvements at the centre of the government’s agenda, there must be opportunities for training providers of all types to respond to the challenge.
My 10 minutes was focussed on training providers integrating provision and providing more focussed services based around what the customer wants. Too often provision is driven by narrow government contracts that focus on specific groups or specific provision. We are all familiar with changing names for similar provision and new initiatives every time a government or even ministers change. Leaders have to find a way round this constant change and think beyond the short-term programme drivers. To do this, they need to think about things in an entirely different way.
We have to find ways to integrate services between providers. Some of the best provision comes from partnerships between providers and between providers of all types such as private training providers and colleges. We have to improve the way we manage subcontracting. We have tended to see these arrangements as short-term delivery contracts rather than long-term strategic partnerships. Excellent leaders can manage collaboration and competition existing in arrangements with other providers.
In the past we have tried to persuade government to integrate skills and employability programmes and skills with other sectors. We will be waiting a long time for that to happen so providers have to do it themselves. Many providers now have contracts with DWP and BIS and many of those have links and contacts with sectors such as Health and Justice.
We need to lead the integration debate by looking at services in a different way. Government is also pretty fixed in its institutional view of skills. When they respond to a skills need, the solution tends to be focussed on institutions. The shortage of mid and high level technical skills resulted in a number of ‘new’ National Colleges (whilst we are trying to reduce the number of current colleges). The Area Reviews are institutionally focussed rather than customer focussed. When the government wanted to increase Higher Apprenticeships, it set up a separate fund just for Universities. We have to move away from this institutional focus.
Integrating commercial training with government supported training has always been a major challenge for the sector. Selling workforce development packages which include some funded provision is not an easy task. It needs different skills and a more flexible approach to delivery models. With reducing government spending and the switch to funding by employers through the Apprenticeship levy and individual loans, leaders in the sector have to think this through and make the most of that change. It is a major challenge but the rewards are big.
Skills underpin a number of issues the government is facing across many other departments including DWP, Justice, Housing, Health and Social Care. Leaders in the skills arena need to understand how skills can bring together a number of different service providers across government and really start to integrate services. This is a huge opportunity but it is difficult sometimes to see past the immediate challenges.
The FETL event was a part of the process of rethinking the role of skills in the economy and the place that training providers might take in that new environment. Integrating services both within the skills sector and with other key sectors of the economy has to be one of the big opportunities we have to think through and lead from the front.
Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers