Delivering Skills To Survive and Thrive

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As the National Training Federation Wales prepares to hold its annual conference at the Celtic Manor Resort, Newport on October 22, chairman Arwyn Watkins speaks about the challenges facing work based learning in Wales.

I have the honour of chairing the National Training Federation Wales (NTfW), a network of 83 quality assured training providers across Wales who are contracted by the Welsh Assembly Government to deliver £116 million of work based learning (WBL) programmes from a total allocation of £126 million. The network comprises private sector training providers, local authorities, further education institutions, charities and the voluntary sector.

As WBL providers, we have direct daily contact with in excess of 30,000 registered businesses in Wales, delivering learning and skills to over 40,000 individuals. The NTfW network, therefore, has a deep understanding of employers’ needs and demands, as we deliver WBL qualifications from entry to Level 5. This facilitates better and more flexible access to learning that promotes inclusion and choice unconstrained by delivery patterns linked to permanent fixed facilities.

Apprenticeships are a key part of WBL, which is now quite rightly recognised as having a vital role to play in ensuring the workforce is properly skilled to enable Wales to compete economically in global markets. At the same time, it is largely misunderstood. Not just by those who have never been involved WBL, but also still by many of the key players involved in developing and delivering the skills agenda in Wales, including even some working with and in the sector itself.

Training providers offer employers services that go far beyond simply delivering the training of their apprentices – in itself a service that requires great expertise in pulling together often complex training programmes and ensuring their effective delivery. Very few employers, certainly SMEs, actually possess this expertise in house. It’s not their core business, after all.

This may come as a surprise to many, but training providers also fulfil the personnel function for some employers, as they take responsibility for the recruitment, selection and induction of apprentices. This is a key service that needs to be maintained and built upon to ensure the transformation policy in Wales achieves its objective in the world of work.

These added-value factors are largely overlooked and unrecognised by key Welsh Assembly departments, such as the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS) and the Department for Economy and Transport. Consequently, in planning terms, they are put at risk in the development of strategy for the future of WBL and the network of providers.

For the record, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that WBL Apprenticeship Framework completions in Wales have now reached 68%, the highest completion rate in the UK.

I maintain that WBL is the Assembly Government’s most flexible and responsive learning programme. The network is constantly directed by DCELLS to reshape its learning delivery in line with new priorities emerging from changes in the Welsh economy and society in general. This responsiveness is not available in any other area of learning funded by DCELLS and this flexibility ensures that ever changing needs and demands for skills by business, industry, learners and communities can be met.

In part, this flexibility and responsiveness must be due to the dominance of private sector providers who are endowed with these characteristics. And don’t forget the third sector providers that are able to access and engage some of the most marginalised people and communities in society. Unfortunately, these significant strengths are not fully understood, recognised or utilised as part of strategic planning on a national, regional or local basis.

Even Estyn identified this weakness in its 2007-08 Annual Report in relation to 14-19 Partnerships, stating: “A few 14-19 Networks do not pay enough attention to WBL and fail to involve WBL providers sufficiently”. It’s essential that the Welsh Assembly Government does not allow this lack of recognition to convert into a missed opportunity in the transformation of learning in Wales.

I have witnessed massive changes in the WBL sector since returning to Wales in 1998. None of the other learning sectors has undergone so much change or responded so quickly and successfully to the challenges of reconfiguration. This evolution has left the WBL in a strong position, at the forefront of delivering learning through a multitude of different mediums to best meet the needs of learners, communities and businesses.

I am pleased to announce that DCELLS has just approved the NTfW Learning Partnership’s transformation proposal to improve efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness of learning delivery. Our partnership aims to widen choice for learners, reduce unnecessary duplication of provision and move to excellence across the network of providers. We welcome DCELLS’ support and the opportunity that this will give NTfW to influence the development of the learning network as future transformational plans are implemented.

My thanks go to employers who are committed to working in partnership with the members of NTfW. We share a common goal: to raise skills levels and give not only new entrants to the labour market an opportunity to develop skills, but also existing employees, enabling them to learn new skills and receive accredited qualifications, which are a passport to sustainable employment.

We are entering an extremely challenging time with an increasing number of under 25s not in employment. This challenge can only be tackled with a firm commitment from all sectors, whose day job is education and training, to buy into a Team Wales solution. We have the relationship with employers, without whom all efforts on transformation will fail. We are up for the challenge are you?

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