Employers are to be given £250 million of colleges’ funding. Shocking. But hang on: what funding is it that colleges are entitled to?

Of course all good employers want to develop the skills of their workforce and apprentices, and most want to use the best colleges and training providers to help them. Where employers act as ‘intelligent customers’ they drive up the quality and impact of the training because, if nobody buys it, poor quality providers go bust.
But at the moment, the state defines and regulates the product, fixes the price and then routes the funding through those providers, good or bad. You would have to be a saint, as a provider, not to exploit the dominant position that gives you.

I should declare my interest. As Director of the LSC/SFA/NAS National Employer Service until recently, I and my team made sure that the senior HR directors of large employers could explain what they wanted from their skills and apprenticeship programmes, and were prepared to invest in enough inhouse expertise to own the funds and make sure the money worked hard for them.

Some large employers found this approach too onerous, and continued to find it easier to outsource the detailed thinking to their provider. But many others started to understand how to achieve their ambitions in spite of the complexity, and developed active long-term commercial partnerships with good, high quality, flexible providers.

I’m not suggesting all were perfect, but I was glad to see Ofsted’s comment last month on the ‘very strong performance’ of ‘employers who deliver their own training’.

Ok, so why do we still have a problem? Here are the first four of my reasons.
First, in spite of the evidence of quality, the furore about this proposal to ‘give funds to employers’ shows how deep-rooted is the belief that employer-led is second best, that employers are not to be trusted, and that the right thing to do is to leave this stuff to the professionals.

I was glad to see Ofsted’s comment last month on the ‘very strong performance’ of ‘employers who deliver their own training’.”

Second, we’re not differentiating between what is good workplace training and programmes that the state is willing to buy. Of course we shouldn’t pay the same good money for a qualification that takes an experienced person eight weeks, if what we actually want to encourage is a year-long development programme which includes mentoring, English and Maths and progression (though that doesn’t mean that the experienced learner and their employer didn’t benefit from a short programme).

Third, the market is dominated by providers (and no doubt some employers as well) who take short-cuts because their ambitions have shrunk to the accumulation of units of qualifications, as Alison Wolf noted, rather than the development of programmes of learning which have currency in the workplace.

Fourth, the support available to employers who would like to recruit young and unemployed people into work and into learning is chopped up into different funding rules and systems between DfE/schools, BIS/apprenticeships and DWP/JobcentrePlus, and unless you’re motivated by the money, who has time for all that?

So a new challenge fund which employers can bid into but which still requires them to deliver the existing regulated SASE-compliant apprenticeship frameworks, and to do it in ways that are convenient to government, is doomed to disappoint. I fear its failure will be claimed as evidence that employers don’t really care about skills. Instead, what this Employer Ownership project needs to achieve is something much more ambitious.

It needs to give employers the opportunity to develop and try out programmes of learning which address government priorities but are not fully regulated. It needs to find new ways of demonstrating accountability for public funds without admin systems so elaborate and complex that they absorb the funds needed for learning and drive employers mad.

And it needs to restore a commercial relationship between employers and their providers which is driven not by qualifications but by the needs of learners and employers.

Hilary Chadwick is a consultant and PhD student researching the skills and apprenticeship programmes of multi-nationals.