Tom Wilson is the director of unionlearn

It's not often unions find themselves being praised from the stage at a Conservative Party annual conference, but this week two ministers told the delegates in Birmingham how much they valued the contribution of unionlearn to learning and training in the workplace.

David Willetts, the universities minister, and John Hayes, the skills minister, must have known this may not have been the best way to engineer a standing ovation from the party faithful, therefore it was good to hear them happy to put their plaudits on record in this setting. The remarks also complemented two very constructive fringe meetings unionlearn held with City & Guilds and Mr Hayes as the guest speaker.

In the context of the skills review, the FE funding consultation and the looming cloud of the CSR, there was a lot to talk about. And it soon became clear that the central question is going to be "Who will pay what?". Mr Hayes said that his government needed to look at ways to persuade employers to make their contribution. With 10 million working people getting no training at all, I argued that it is vital that good employers should not be being undermined by employers who make savings by spending nothing. Companies should be required to publish their training budget as part of the annual report. This week's Ofsted report on work-related training is unequivocal in showing the benefits employers reap from having staff who are given the opportunity to improve their skills.

Suggestions from the platform of increasing the number of licenses to practice to a wider range of professions and trades, requiring companies to provide training beyond the minimum health and safety presently provided, and for access to loans for FE and part-time students and the introduction of individual learning accounts were all met positively by the minister, although he doubted that the economic situation would allow the government being able to make substantial contributions to ILAs. He did, however, hint that he would be looking at using tax breaks as an incentive to small and medium sized companies. And, as it happens, unionlearn published this week its toolkit to help union reps to establish collective learning funds to generate co-investment in training.

Mr Hayes said he had already given FE colleges greater freedoms to respond to the market and said he would be announcing further freedoms before Christmas. He said he wanted FE colleges to be responsible for more HE provision and that he wanted to look at ways to increase modular learning and credit-based learning, which are more suited to the rhythms of life of those in work. He also agreed with the platform that if he is to open up the market in learning and make the learner the driver, good quality information and guidance was vital for young people and adults; but, he admitted, the lack of money would not make this easy.

I was pleased to hear the minister supporting the work of Niace and informal adult learning. Mr Hayes is right to say that learning is all about social mobility and social justice. It is essential in these straitened times that those who need it the most, will not continue to lose out.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC's learning and training organisation

 

Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

FE gears up for the autumn conference season

How will government encourage employers to train amid funding shortfall?

Has FE met its Prince Charming or Prince of Darkness?
 

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