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Wicks urges NTOs to think creatively about becoming leaner and more efficient


Lifelong Learning Minister Malcolm Wicks has thrown down the gauntlet to the National Training Organisations. Get thinking about how the NTO network can best serve the needs of employers, because things need to change.

Speaking at their annual conference, Wicks said NTOs have "a unique role to represent employer needs and to work with their sectors to increase skills", but that they need to rethink and refocus: "We all need to engage in some creative thinking about NTOs to see if the NTO network should become smaller and better focused, if we are to have employees equipped with the necessary skills for the knowledge economy."

Wicks said he didn't believe the current set-up would allow for a strong and respected NTO network: "We must be honest about NTOs and honest with each other. I am concerned that while progress has been made there is still much work to be done to make our vision for NTOs a reality. We have some strong NTOs but for most, their credibility with employers and other partners still needs to be established." In particular he highlighted the problem of certain NTOs with low levels of employer support and limited resources.

In his speech, Wicks announced that there would be a major consultation to produce a blueprint for a stronger network of NTOs. From November, the NTO Advisory Group under the Chairmanship of Llew Aviss will look at each NTO as it comes up for re-recognition. He also identified the key roles for the NTOs as undertaking high quality sector skills assessments, creating sector workforce development plans and setting and maintaining standards for learning, working closely with the incoming Learning and Skills Councils and other education and training bodies to improve workforce skills.

An article appeared in the Financial Times on Monday saying that in order to achieve the new structure, Wicks would push for the number of NTOs to be reduced by merger from 75 to about 30. Claire Anderton from the NTO National Council says that this was never the intention: "there will probably be some reduction in numbers and some mergers, but the numbers have yet to be decided on." Wicks himself said: "Do not be taken in by the misleading article in yesterday's Financial Times. I have no number in mind for the total NTOs there should be."

Anderton herself said that the key message to come out of the speech was that the government is right behind the NTOs, because it sees them as the only way to build on the skills shortage.

Wicks only briefly touched on funding issues, saying that he was looking to secure "a substantial increase in funding", but the DfEE has since added that from next year, NTOs will receive funding to support their key functions, such as skills assessments and sector workforce development planning.

The speech, which had been rescheduled from the end of the conference because of Donald Dewar's funeral, sparked a lively debate at the first ever Employer Summit, which brought together employers and members of the NTO network. Claire Anderton commented on the wide range of employers present, from large companies like Railtrack to small employers. It was the SMEs who were particularly keen to discuss the issue of training, being keen to dismiss the idea that 'SMEs don't train'.

TrainingZONE says: It looks like interesting times for the NTOs as they negotiate a new understanding with the government over their role and performance. We're hoping to be able to interview National Council CEO Andy Powell about these changes in the next few months.


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