Whither Sector Skills Councils

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 5 March 2014

In training, learning and development policy - as in so many areas of activity - the small print can be critical.  The more I delve into the detail of the Government's Implementation Plan on Apprenticeships   the more I realise that some important changes are taking place, but that they are slipping through unnoticed. One important example concerns the downgrading of the role of Sector Skills Council (SSCs).

Few learning, training and development managers would put their bodies on the line to defend institutions created by government to operate in the training arena. Observers of the scene have seen perpetual change and policy oscillations between locally based bodies and sectoral bodies. At present, we have a hybrid pattern in existence. Some areas have Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS). These are voluntary arrangements between local authorities and businesses to help determine local economic priorities and to lead economic growth and job creation within a geographical area. Nationally, there are 18 Sector Skills Councils and five Sector Skills Bodies charged with defining skills needs and skills standards in their industry. All are employer-led. They are funded through a combination of government projects, apprenticeship services, membership fees, consultancy, training courses and other commercial income. 

I see a continuing and important role for the sector-based national bodies. However, as far as local bodies are concerned I am scarred by my experiences in the 1990s when I encountered the Training and Enterprise Councils  - always known as TECs. I was then the head of human resource development at a major investment bank. After initial contact with the TECs my aim subsequently was to keep them as far away from the organisation as possible to stop them causing confusion and wasting time.  

At the time there was a City of London TEC and a Central London TEC, the latter covering the West End. I well remember attending a meeting called by the City TEC in which their Chief Executive told the assembled training managers that "Those of us who commute in from Orpington or St. Albans may be unaware of the real economic problems that are present in this TEC Area". I was then living in Upper Holloway so this did not go down too well.  Both TECs seemed to spend their time producing products that nobody wanted (publications or training videos that competed with existing provision) or holding conferences. They were hopelessly ill equipped to understand, let alone address, the real problems I faced in my HR role at the Bank, for example the shortage of people able to deliver effective training in the rapidly emerging area of financial derivatives.

It is much easier to see a role for bodies that focus on the problems of a sector. There can be important issues to be addressed in identifying and removing blockages in the skills supply chain. Here some impressive work has been undertaken by Cogent, the Sector Skills Council for the science-based industries. These industries involved rely on a constant supply of high-level skills to ensure innovation and growth; effective and apprenticeships have become an important element in meeting that challenge and in September 2012 Cogent launched a Developing Science Professionals programme. Their work seems to me to reflect an impressive understanding of the industry and a realistic recognition of what is deliverable, 

However, to return to the Apprenticeship Implementation Plan, in the publication the Sector Skills Council has been airbrushed out of the picture. Insteadof the usual fanfare that is an essential part of any government initiative, a whole series of 'Trailblazer' groups have been set up to design new apprenticeships standards. The group that covers the science-based industries lists 15 organisations some of whom, for example GSK and Johnson & Johnson, are significant industry players. In practice Cogent, will be working closely with many of these employers in developing the new 'standards' that are replacing the existing 'frameworks'. 

Nowhere is there any explanation offered for the public downgrading of the SSCs. If the SSCs are any good (as I believe to be the case in Cogent) surely they should be publicly recognised as such. They should have a formal declared role in the next stage of apprenticeship policy. Part of the reason for seeking to work directly with the companies - and here I am guessing - may be a naïve belief that our employers are champing at the bit to ratchet up training if only the government would get out of the way. However, as Doug Richard in his seminal 2012 report on apprenticeships put it: "It is right and efficient that employers dedicate their efforts and resources to running their businesses, not to running apprenticeships" .

Make no mistake something will emerge from this Trailblazer project - there is too much politically at stake for the Government for this not to happen. However, yet another important change in skills policy is taking place without any debate or hard questions. 

About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com
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