Blunkett puts Pounds 38m behind skills boost

September 18, 1998

Harriet Swain reports from the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool

The government is to devote Pounds 38 million to improving skills in the United Kingdom following the first report of a task force on skills shortages.

David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, told the Trades Union Congress annual meeting in Blackpool this week that the money would help further and higher education, together with regional development agencies, to tackle gaps in skills and training.

The interim report, Towards a National Skills Agenda, was drawn up by the skills task force, which is chaired by Chris Humphries, director general of the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, and includes Eddie MacIntyre, principal of the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies and Lesley Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, as well as industrialists and union representatives.

It demands a stronger focus on priority skills in national education and training, more emphasis on workplace learning and a stress on information technology.

The report calls for "a national strategy for IT skills that clarifies the roles of education, private trainers and employers and provides a better basis for careers advice". It also wants the Department for Education and Employment and its partners to commission work to ensure all post-16 learning and training programmes offer the chance to learn employability skills.

Announcing the cash, Mr Blunkett said: "Only by working together can we really tackle the rapid change and uncertainty that faces every man and woman in this country and increasingly every industry and service. The old certainties have gone forever."

He said training would help widen the available pool of labour to improve competitiveness. Trade unions would play a crucial role in this.

He therefore announced an extra Pounds 6 million over the next three years to develop the union learning fund, which supports innovative, sustainable projects based in England that provide advice, improve equality, organisation or employee development and/or help young people.

In its first year, 21 unions with 45 projects between them submitted successful bids to the Pounds 2 million fund.

Projects include a TUC South West course on learning barriers for part-time workers; a TUC Northern region project on building union involvement in the planned University for Industry; and a TUC North West project to encourage employers to sign up to the government's new individual learning account scheme.

Introducing the learning services report on these initiatives, Jimmy Knapp, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, said: "Now we have a government that shares our passion for learning."

He said the TUC had been successful in a bid for European funding that would maximise union involvement in the UFI by promoting it to members and employers, developing a UFI taster course and using web-based training through TUC education online.

But Moira Carr, president of the lecturers' union Natfhe, warned there were dangers with the lifelong learning rhetoric.

"Learning is not some osmosis that occurs whenever you put someone in front of a computer," she said. "People need contact with real live tutors with full employment rights, properly paid and whose profession is valued and recognised."

She said the vision must be supported by government policy and finance and called for employers to contribute more to the education and training of the workforce.

Leader, page 16

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