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Interview of the month: Michael Wills MP


Several months ago TrainingZONE took the opportunity to put some written questions to the MP responsible for learning and technology. Michael Wills, whose full title is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Learning and Technology, reports to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment. Wills, who entered the House of Commons in 1997 and is also MP for Swindon North, was previously a civil servant and television producer before being appointed to his current role in July 1999.

As Under-Secretary of State for Learning and Technology, Wills has responsibility for ICT in education and employment, the National Grid for Learning, the University for Industry and learndirect (with Baroness Blackstone), broadcasting and the development of home-based learning, relationships with employers and workforce development. With a portfolio like that we were keen to get him to comment for us on some of the developments currently coming out of the DfEE. The responses finally arrived last week - let's hope TrainingZONE readers find them worth the wait!

TrainingZONE: A recent survey undertaken by the Campaign for Learning found that 6 out of 10 employees were working in a 'poor learning climate'. In January of this year, David Blunkett said that employers will never have to pay a training levy. If this is the case, how can the government hope to encourage employers to invest time and money in their employees' development?

Michael Wills: While some industries do still operate a statutory levy, evidence from earlier experience in this country and from abroad suggests that a compulsory levy across all industries is not the best way to raise the skills levels of the workforce. We are taking a partnership approach - working together with employers, employees and trade unions to get the skills that the economy and individuals need.

When we came into office we were determined to get a true picture of existing skills in the workforce – and any gaps. For this reason we established a National Skills Task Force drawn from all sides of industry and from key elements of the education and training sector.

We have already introduced a number of important programmes and policies intended to drive up skill levels, including the setting up of learndirect, the creation of a national system of Individual Learning Accounts and the introduction of the New Deal, which includes a substantial amount of skill training.

We are aware of the task ahead to keep driving up skills across the board in the UK. We have legislated to create the Learning and Skills Council, integrating for the first time the planning and funding for all post 16 school learning outside HE. The new Adult Basic Skills Unit will be important in drawing up a national strategy for basic skills. We are also taking forward the Skills Task Force recommendation to create much improved vocational qualifications, with new vocational GCSEs and A levels, new apprenticeships and work-related foundation degrees. Vocational routes have been neglected in the past, but with this framework coming into place, we are developing a coherent system to equip people for the skills needed in the workplace.

TrainingZONE: The skills gap has been widely reported on - it’s an issue that seems to be particularly affecting your own constituency. The government is introducing initiatives such as providing free IT courses worth £400 to the unemployed in an attempt to tackle this, but isn’t there a danger that these ‘hard skills’ are being given too much emphasis? After all, technical training rapidly becomes out of date, but ‘soft skills’ such as communication and interpersonal skills are vital in any job - shouldn’t these be treated as just as important?

Michael Wills: Interpersonal and communication skills are important and we recognise this. We have identified a range of skills - key skills - that people need if they are to prosper in working life. Three of these skills - communication, number and IT - form a new qualification aimed at all those in post 16 education and training.

We want to help people gain wider skills, such as the ability to work with others and to solve problems, as a natural part of education and training. The New Deals for unemployed people offer help with communication skills and self-presentation.

Another top priority is to equip unemployed people with the skills essential to get a good job. When over 90 per cent of new jobs require the use of a computer, familiarity with new technology is a basic necessity for finding and keeping work. Our UK online: computer skills training is giving first-time computer users across the country the confidence they need to use IT.

TrainingZONE: It's been suggested that lack of co-ordination between those responsible for pre-16 and post-16 learning poses a potential problem to lifelong learning, because many people are 'switched off' from learning due to bad experiences at school. Would you agree that it would make more sense to tackle the problems with disaffection there and then rather than trying to entice them back to learning years later?

Michael Wills: We are determined to re-engage young people in learning, preventing them from dropping out of the system early. Our work builds on the recommendations of the Bridging the Gap report and we announced the new Connexions Strategy last February. A key element of this strategy is the creation of the Connexions Service - a universal advice, guidance and support Service for all 13 - 19 year olds that will be help young people manage the transition from pre to post 16 learning. This Service is being rolled out across England from next year.

All young people require access to high quality and well informed information, advice and guidance about a range of subjects, including education, training and careers, and help them overcome barriers to learning. Some young people will require more intensive support - particularly those that, for a whole variety of reasons, have dropped out of school or are underachieving. Some of the less intensive help will be provided through new technology - the Connexions Website and Connexions Direct help line, but for those young people who need additional support, this will be available through Connexions Service Personal Advisers.

TrainingZONE: The government has launched a number of initiatives to encourage learning, which is encouraging, but there are a confusing number of different websites giving information about them. What is the easiest way for people to find out what's available to them online?

Michael Wills: The easiest way for people to find out, on line, what learning opportunities are available, is to visit the learndirect website at This website offers information and advice on a wide range of learning opportunities through a searchable database of over 500,000 courses, available through a variety of learning approaches.

TrainingZONE: The UfI website says that "UfI will cater for a very wide range of learners, from basic skills to post-graduate level, and from general management for SMEs to specific technical skills and knowledge for designated priority areas", but so far, the messages being given out about the aims of learndirect appear confusing - the 'Get Your Kit On' television campaign seemed to be about keeping fit! UfI has a pretty big aim - how can it hope to deliver to such a wide group of learners?

Michael Wills: learndirect is all about making it easier for everyone to access relevant, high quality learning materials and courses. It does aim to reach a wide range of learners and is achieving this by using new information communications technology and establishing a network of learndirect centres.

A key feature of learndirect’s inclusive strategy is to make learning accessible in the home, the workplace or in a learning centre so that people can fit learning into their everyday lives. This of course will also be immensely valuable to small businesses by minimising the expensive downtime associated with releasing staff for more traditional courses.

The learndirect information and advice service gives access to a wide range of accurate and up to date information on learning opportunities. The telephone helpline (0800 100 900) has already taken over two million phone calls, and information is also available on-line through the learndirect website. This service makes it easier for people to take the first steps into learning by giving clear, reliable, impartial advice on the courses that will meet people’s needs.

TrainingZONE: The new Individual Learning Accounts are a great idea, but the Institute for Public Policy Research is concerned that those who would benefit most from them are those least likely to take up the scheme. Apart from the initial £150 incentive, what is being done to promote the accounts to those who will struggle to find the initial £25 of their own to put in?

Michael Wills: Individual Learning Accounts are a new way of getting people into learning, particularly alongside learndirect. Our own research tells us that many of those of who need most to get back into learning - such as younger people with low skills and qualifications - will respond positively to the discounts and incentives available to them through the Individual Learning Account mechanism. We will be promoting Individual Learning Accounts by working together with partner organisations such as learning providers, employer bodies and trade unions. Unions in particular will help convince those who need the provision most, both by promoting the new national framework and by offering support in the workplace.

TrainingZONE: Many TrainingZONE members are very supportive of e-learning - indeed, some are directly involved in developing and working with learning content on the web. How do you think interactive home-based learning through the television will impact on the policies of those responsible for overseeing and providing learning in the workplace?

Michael Wills: Developments in television are particularly relevant, since it is potentially the universally accessible medium, and interactive TV offers the opportunity to further widen and consolidate participation in learning. For example, around 4.5 million homes in the UK have digital access and the Henley Centre predicts that internet access by Digital TV will overtake PC access in mid 2002. It will, therefore, be necessary to continually track technological developments in order to fully exploit the possibilities they may present.

UfI are actively considering emerging technologies and the projected changes in the delivery profile. As such, Digital TV is expected to be a key element in sustaining and extending the reach and provision for learners. Specifically, Ufi is investigating the potential for linking work based learning content with digitally broadcast material so that, for example, learners could be moving seamlessly between a web based learning item from their employers portfolio and related digitally broadcast material.

Food for thought - two questions we couldn't get Michael Wills to answer:

  • We could have conducted this interview online - what use do you make of IT in your daily work?

  • You have an interesting background - we read that you've travelled, then moved into the diplomatic service, then became a TV producer, and that early in your working life, you worked as a hamburger chef! What are the learning experiences that stand out as most important for you so far in your life?


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