Ex-director admits lack of skill

September 1, 1995

A key player in the Government's heavily criticised privatisation of the Skills Training Agency in 1990 has now admitted that the move was a failure.

At the time of its sell-off, STA boasted a network of around 60 training centres whose task was to help improve the skill level of British industry. The intervening years have seen a series of financial and management scandals that have decimated the web of centres.

The criticism came from Ian Johnston, recently appointed deputy principal of Sheffield Hallam University. Prior to his appointment Dr Johnston was director of the Training, Enterprise and Education Directorate at the Employment Department.

In an article for an internal newsletter published this month, Dr Johnston highlights the shortcomings of some of the policies adopted by the Government. "Not everything we tried worked," he admits. "The ill-fated Learning for Work programme and the privatisation of the STA for example." He also says that "we are far from getting right training incentives for small firms, work based routes to degrees and higher level skills". In addition, he believes, the Government still needs to promote the use of modern technology to assist learning at the work place, as well as individuals managing, owning and perhaps even funding their own learning.

Dr Johnston had been closely associated with national vocational education policy including GNVQs, National Education Targets and the current Dearing review of 16-19 qualifications.

The STA saga began with the acquisition of 45 of the training centres in 1990 by Astra Training Services, a firm that was paid Pounds 10.7 million by the Government to take facilities off its hands. Four hundred STA employees, mostly civil servants, were made redundant at the time of the sale. Astra eventually folded in July 1993 with debts of Pounds 15 million.

The storm of protest at the Government's inaction and reluctance to accept any responsibility for the Astra debacle was quickly followed by further anger among unions and employees over the sale of 13 of the remaining training centres to Patrick Doyle in 1993. In October it emerged that Mr Doyle was a convicted forger who had been prohibited from running several vocational schools in New York. Mr Doyle's AST group of companies collapsed in June this year with debts of Pounds 5.5 million.

Stephen Farley of the National Union of Civil and Public Servants says of Dr Johnston's admission: "It is nice to have confirmation of our views. We predicted that the privatisation of the STA was not in the public interest and regrettably we have been proven correct. The takeover of Astra by Mr Doyle was the final nail in the coffin."

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