Big skills 'mess' will take a year to sort out

November 29, 2002

It could take a year for further education colleges to breathe new life into a skills training system described as a "mess" by trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt, college heads warned this week.

That is the soonest the £1.2 billion funding boost for further education, announced by the government last week, can feed through and begin to increase lecturers' salaries sufficiently to attract trainers from industry, they said.

Ms Hewitt told a panel debate at the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference that workplace training and vocational learning "has been a mess for years" and admitted it had not been the government's priority in its first term.

Ms Hewitt recently agreed with education secretary Charles Clarke to focus the government's vocational learning effort on training plumbers, electricians and bricklayers, where serious skills shortages are developing.

College leaders said there had been big increases in demand for further education courses in these areas. Some institutions have reported a 40 per cent rise in applications in the past year.

But many had been frustrated by a staff recruitment and retention crisis caused by low levels of funding that had left them unable to train as many students as they would have liked.

Colleges were no longer able to offer attractive conditions of service to people from industry to compensate for relatively low wages, said Frank Horan, head of technology at the College of North West London, a centre of vocational excellence.

He said: "Colleges are the only place where you can get training to the level that industry requires. But as things stand, the skills shortages mean people in these trades can earn between £10,000 and £15,000 a year more than they could teaching in a college. Not only that, but colleges no longer offer longer holidays or a shorter working week."

A spokesman for the Learning and Skills Council said action was already under way to tackle the skills shortages, with 14,000 young people recruited through Modern Apprenticeship schemes, £8.5 million invested in training and retraining for adults and more centres of vocational excellence being set up.

* Scotland's pioneering credit-transfer system is set to underpin moves to improve further education lecturers' teaching skills, writes Olga Wojtas.

Iain Gray, minister for enterprise, transport and lifelong learning, has authorised a review of national guidelines for lecturers' qualifications.

Speaking at the Lecturer's Journey of Professionalism conference in Glasgow, Mr Gray said the Scottish Further Education Funding Council had this year put £2.75 million into colleges to release staff for training.

The council wants 90 per cent of full-time and 55 per cent of part-time lecturers to have a teaching qualification or its equivalent.

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