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Money Well Spent? The £28m Skills Campaign. By Annie Hayes


With £28 million of funding it is little wonder that the government’s skills advertising campaign is being heralded as the biggest of its kind so will it deliver and is the training fraternity behind it? Annie Hayes reports.

It does what it says on the tin. Or so they hope. Our future. It’s in our hands, the campaign being deployed by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in conjunction with the government and the Sector Skills Development Agency and on behalf of the further education system wins some points for the simplicity of its message. Essentially it calls on the guardians of skills – employers and individuals to take control of their futures by investing in them.

The ambitious three to five year campaign forms part of the broader Leitch Implementation Plan. When the Lord Leitch's skills review was published in December last year it warned that the UK would need to become a world leader in skills by 2020 if it is to sustain and improve its position in the global economy. In 2004 figures showed that there were 6.8 million adults in the UK without a level two qualification and with a serious skills need in numeracy, literacy and IT.

The campaign consists of TV, posters, press, radio and online advertising. And according to the LSC it’s money well spent. Overseeing and directing the development of the campaign is the LSC’s Head of Marketing and Communications, Nicky Brunker: “Our Future. It’s in our hands gives the further education sector a voice and puts learning and skills on the boardroom agenda as well as every person’s to do list. We have to inspire people to be as bold and as keen to learn as when they were children – nothing seems to phase my five year old – and this campaign taps into a very simple idea that we’re all born with the ability to learn.”

Addressing the ‘… but’:
Many business groups have greeted the campaign warmly and support the government’s drive to push skills to the forefront of the agenda. Charlotte Moore-Bick, a spokesperson for the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) told me that the lobby group were supportive of the skills campaign and welcomed the campaign’s emphasis on the shared responsibility between employers, individuals and government.

“Our own research found that SMEs (small to medium sized enterprises) already train their staff – over 83 per cent of businesses surveyed source external training for their employees and this is in addition to extensive in-house training. But to really compete in a global economy, we need to value skills across the board and to feel that it is a collective responsibility.”

Yet the challenge, say the BCC is to make sure that the whopping £28 million investment translates into action and is money well spent, and as a further concern the BCC said: “The Skills Envoy is not being replaced and we fear that this may mean skills for business lose some of the momentum gained in recent months.”

Like the BCC, the Federation of Small Businesses support the general aims of the campaign and see skills as a crucial area of investment but warn that the government need to look at the heart of the problem: "One quarter of small businesses have had trouble recruiting people with the right skills, including basic literacy and numeracy. We are right behind any initiative that encourages people to make the most of their talents and improve their range of skills. This will benefit both employers and employees alike. However, this campaign should not distract the government from its most important task in this area: to ensure the education system produces literate, numerate and presentable people with a range of skills to match the vacancies that employers have."

But by far the biggest fear of all the lobby groups, individual trainers and training outfits I spoke to was that the campaign would fail to address how to turn good intentions into improvements in skills. In essence how to get from A to B.

Miles Templeman, Director-General of the Institute of Directors, said: “I am nervous the ad is going to be stating skills are important, but does not say what the government is going to do about it, or how businesses can act. It may not be the best use of resources, and it may not be productive.”

“Far too many employers do not know how to access Train to Gain, the government initiative designed to help businesses access training, Templeman added. “Don’t let’s waste too much resource on [the PR campaign]. What employers want is for the government to focus on implementation,” he said.

Past performance:
TrainingZone member Rus Slater of P3I-People and Process Performance Improvement said that looking at past performance should be an indicator of what to expect in the future: “The Modern Apprenticeship scheme was a huge spend for the government but produced virtually no result other than some rather impressive adverts. I overheard some people from the LSC discussing the actual cost per apprentice when the advertising budget was included in the overall equation; it was eye watering.”

But more than this, Slater says that the emphasis on ‘qualification’ is what really worries him:

“Beneath this we have to ask whether a measurement of who is ‘qualified’ is a realistic measurement of the skill level involved. In 1907 a far higher proportion of the British population was ‘unqualified’ but I dare say that the skill level amongst the working population was extremely high. We now have a higher number of school leavers achieving the measured levels of success in qualifications but employers (including the public sector) are consistent in their complaint that school leavers have very significant skill gaps.”

Garry Platt, Tutor Consultant at Woodland Grange is also concerned. He says that what worries him is the lack of consistency and agreement on the way forward:

“A major necessity as I see it for this kind of national strategy to succeed is ‘joined up government’ where the tactics of one department are sympathetic or at least neutral in relation to its counter parts. I don’t believe this is currently happening. In colleges offering skills training of the very kind highlighted by this initiative the funding for adults has been cut back with the primary focus on young people and their development. Consequently many adults now have to pay ‘full fee’ for a course if we want to run it without the funding.”

Whilst Platt believes the intentions are good he is not sure that a consistent and effective national strategy is being developed.

“Today the chickens have come home to roost that were hatched and batched in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. With no cross party agreement and government strategy changing as each successive minister or party takes over we are forever going to be faced by short term ideas driven by short lived politicians with ideas that extend as far as the next election.”

Bill Rammell, Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has been keen to stem the flow of criticism and says the campaign funds will be used effectively to make a difference. “It represents 0.3 per cent of the adult budget that we will spend this year but will have a reach far beyond that. It has the power to change culture, change lives, change our country.”

If the campaign delivers on the dream then the investment will pale into insignificance. If it fails yet another initiative will be deployed to pick up the skills gauntlet in what if you believe the cynics is turning out to be somewhat of a merry-go-round.


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