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A year at the Department for Education and Employment


The year 2000 has been a busy one for David Blunkett and his colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment. Scarcely a week has gone by without an announcement of a new scheme or a major shake-up to an existing programme run by the department - developments which have been keeping TrainingZONE on its toes as it struggles to keep up with the changes and identify the best sources of information on projects for TrainingZONE members.

The new year began with a flurry of announcements from the DfEE on a range of issues. At the North of England Education Conference, David Blunkett set out his department's vision for the future of education and training in a speech which was broadcast live over the Internet. We heard the first inklings of the Individual Learning Account scheme, which was laid out as a system of 'skill development loans which are transferable between employers as an employee moves jobs. Later in the year, funding problems were going to stop the plans from developing into full scale learning accounts. The government also made a decision on training levies after receiving evidence from the third report of the National Skills Task Force.

One topic which was to remain controversial throughout the year 2000 was that of the output figures for the New Deal scheme. In January the government were reporting record figures of 169,000. By the end of the year it would be 250,000, with the government claiming it had achieved one of its key manifesto pledges as a result. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were disputing the way the figures were calculated.

Come February, come more proposals, and a particular proposal for a UK-wide e-university. The DfEE says that pilot schemes will be established with universities and technology providers to deliver online university teaching with degree-awarding status. Since then, a business model has been put together with a view to creating a detailed plan to implement the e-university by the end of the year.

Further developments are afoot in the field of vocational learning, including a revamped Apprenticeships scheme and changes to accreditation of qualifications.

There's also an update on the work of the University for Industry, which formed late last year. Pilot learning centres are starting to get up and running in England and Wales and it has announced the creation of a network of learning resource centres across Northern Ireland as well as a partnership link with a range of European funded ADAPT projects. There's also a new Connexions service to advise 13-19 year olds on the cards, but it won't come into existence until early next year.

In March, the fledgling Learning and Skills Council finds itself a home in 47 regional offices throughout England. The first developments this year to expand the New Deal are announced, offering financial incentives to single parents with children over five and a job grant of £100 available to the long-term unemployed.

By April the government have a clearer plan for Individual Learning Accounts and launch a website with details of the scheme. The accounts themselves will not be accessible until the summer.

Also this month, the DfEE joins forces with the DTI to form a new body for developing managers in the UK. The Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership joins the plethora of councils and bodies already under the DfEE's wing. So far, the Council has undertaken a number of consultation exercises, including one on business schools, and has started mapping competencies for management development.

In May, the DfEE publishes its annual 'Skills Needs in Britain' survey which reports that over two-thirds of employers with more than 25 employees have increasing skills needs because of growing competition, changing work practices and new technology - not exactly surprising findings, but they reflect an increasing concern over problems with the lack of skilled staff available in occupations such as nursing and IT.

The University for Industry gets a new chairman this month - Sir Anthony Greener secures the post through 'promotion' from vice-chairman. He takes over from Lord Dearing, who is in the process of reducing his work commitments.

The CBI is one of several organisations raising questions about the status and quality of training provided as part of the Modern Apprenticeship scheme this year, and the Institute of Public Policy Research <a href=" raises concerns that the soon-to-be available Individual Learning Accounts will not be user-friendly enough for those who really need to access funding for training.

In June, it's an unfortunate faux-pas by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as he tells a new primary school full of children that "the school wasn't built for your teachers or your parents or your politicians - we're much too old to learn anything". Music to David Blunkett's ears, no doubt!

More New Deal controversy arrives in the form of research commissioned this time by the government. The figures apparently show that although the scheme is close to paying for itself, but Conservatives say that the scheme would take 26 years to find jobs for the 410,000 single mothers who are eligible. This follows research from the Government's Skills Task Force which finds that supervisory skills are in such short supply that 2 million people have been employed without the skills required for the job. Getting people skilled for jobs where there are massive skills shortages is an issue which is going to occupy the government for quite some time, and vocational degrees aren't necessarily the answer, according to the CBI.

Also this month, the DfEE reveals that professional and educational services provider the Capita Group have been chosen to administer the Individual Learning Accounts scheme. The news follows the government's failure to involve any of the big financial institutions in turning the accounts into fully functioning 'bank accounts'.

In July, David Blunkett announced the approval of 17 new Union Learning Fund projects across the country, which will offer financial support to trade unions to promote or support learning in the workplace. 4.5 million will be available in the coming year to projects relating to learning in the workplace submitted by unions. Later on in the year Blunkett would continue to emphasise the importance of the role of unions in developing training within organisations, and the need for them to work closely with the Learning and Skills Council as it takes shape. The formation of the Council also took another step this month, with the appointment of the current chief executive of Oxfordshire County Council as the new chief executive of the LSC.

In August, Parliament finally rubber-stamps the birth of the Learning and Skills Council as the Learning and Skills Bill receives Royal Assent. A number of other policies will be affected by the new Act, including changes to the Modern Apprenticeship scheme and the introduction of the new Adult Learning Inspectorate. This month, the current chief inspector of the Training Standards Council David Sherlock is announced as the new chief inspector of the ALI. Sherlock will have some familiar faces around him - Nick Reilly, the current chair of the TSC was appointed as chair designate of the ALI on 4 July, and it seems likely there will be other similar moves.

With the full launch of Learndirect imminent, The Association of Colleges teams up with the University for Industry to form a working group aimed at strengthening links between the UfI and the Further Education sector. This was also the month Individual Learning Accounts became available to learners for the first time. In the interests of curiosity, and with a view to carrying out some formal learning of its own, TrainingZONE applied for one. Find out what happened in chapter one and chapter two of our ILA story...

In September there's yet more controversy over the New Deal scheme, as the Industrial Society argues that the recruitment and training, of advisers should be given a higher priority than subsidising employers.

Support is promised by the government for both large and small companies in the form of a dedicated unit for large employers and a new Small Firms Training Loan scheme. The latter comes as the Institute of Directors urges more financial support for small businesses to make Modern Apprenticeships a success.

Another sign that the Learning and Skills Council is gradually coming into force arrives this month, when Education and Employment Minister Baroness Blackstone announced the appointment of 45 new Local Learning and Skills Council Executive Directors.

October was the month that, after months of planning and about a year of pilot projects around the country, learndirect centres finallly opened their doors to encourage a whole range of the population to 'get back into learning'.

Writing in the Guardian, Nick Tester argues that by appointing so many former Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) senior staff to the new Learning and Skills Council, the government are simply going to re-create the role of what he terms the 'officially discredited' and 'past their sell-by date' TECs. Meanwhile, The Training and Employment Network reports that an LSC Human Resources Briefing Pack has been produced for staff in those organisations eligible for transfer to the LSC under TUPE regulations.

Money seems to be a key headline in government press releases all year, with extra funding being announced for projects across the DfEE's remit. This month it's the turn of basic skills to benefit, but the Training Standards Council is concerned that some of the money on offer for Modern Apprenticeships isn't being properly used due to TEC funding methods.

By November the ILA scheme has only been up and running for several months, but the British Computer Society has expressed concerns that some 'unscrupulous' training providers may be upping their fees in order to take advantage of extra government funding. The DfEE responds by placing a cap on the amount it will give to fund ILAs for IT training.

This month, the DfEE publishes a detailed description of its plans for the incoming Learning and Skills Council, with an extra 600 million being made available over the next few years to support its work. But following the Guardian's critique last month, questions are now being asked by TrainingZONE members about the apparent lack of emphasis the government is placing on the role of training providers in working with the new council.

Further evidence of a shake-up within Further Education comes as Education and Employment Minister Tessa Blackstone unveils a new qualifications framework for FE Teachers. Later in the month, David Blunkett reveals plans for FE colleges to become centres of excellence, with extra money on offer as an incentive.

After pledging funds for so many different projects, this month the government finds itself with a 10m liability, as the nto is placed into administration after a contracted training provider folds.

At the end of the month and a nearly a year of DfEE press releases, TrainingZONE is able to at least hear some of the government's aims and responses 'from the horses mouth' as we secure an exclusive interview with Michael Wills MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Learning and Technology.

At the end of the year it seems there's no let-up in the government's push to shake up the learning environment across-the-board. In December it announces the names of the first providers of the new foundation degrees, due to be offered to students for the first time from September 2001. It also seems that the latest proposals to reorganise Further Education may be a step too far, as colleges take legal advice on plans to take audit arrangements under the wing of the Further Education Funding Council.

TrainingZONE says: So to the end of an extremely busy year for the DfEE. They're certainly busy implementing new projects and schemes, but it remains to be seen how effective some of them will be. As we've seen, there's been concern from a number of quarters over the way funding issues for the likes of Modern Apprenticeships and FE colleges themselves. Learndirect and Individual Learning Accounts have yet to make a major impact according to voters in the latest TrainingZONE poll, but they're both in their infancy and either could prove to be a useful tool in expanding the reach of formal learning in the year to come.


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