VET in Britain HR Management

  • The involvement of government in VET in the UK

With its voluntarist system of VET, Britain has traditionally left the provision of training and employee development to employers, and has largely had an educational system that was geared to preparing young people as members of society rather than as workers. However, the experience of relative economic decline in Britain has raised a number of questions regarding the role of education and training policy in helping to halt or reverse that trend.

It has become clear that employers by themselves cannot achieve the major investment needed by the nation in training and development. This is not only because they serve their own self-interest rather than that of the economy at large, but also because they have had to operate within a patchwork of complex and poorly integrated VET courses, standards and qualifications. The only way to deal strategically with the nation’s shortfall in skills has been for the government to modify its voluntarist approach and develop an overall framework for VET.

However, whether voluntarism should be abandoned entirely is being currently debated, although in February 2000 the Labour government stated that it will not be adopting a training levy proposal at present, an indication that the voluntarist approach will remain predominant (see the subsection on Labour government policies later in this chapter).

  • The recent history of government involvement

The history of government initiatives in training is a relatively short one. Not until 1964, when Industrial Training Boards (ITBs) were set up, was there an attempt by government to influence employer training behaviour. Subsidies were given to companies that were able to show that they were carrying out training programmes of a type approved by the Training Boards, and Boards were set up to oversee most sectors of the economy.

The ITBs did have some impact on popularising training by pointing to its benefits, which also helped to influence companies to set up training departments and improve their training methods (Manpower Services Commission, 1981b). The neo-liberalist Conservative governments from 1979 were directly opposed to any form of compulsion, and thus the voluntarist tradition was re-emphasised and bolstered.

It is surprising, therefore, that more government policies directed at improving training were initiated than before. The Employment and Training Act 1981 abolished most of VET in Britain 341 the ITBs, and the government stressed that ‘it is for employers to make the necessary investment in training for the work that they require’ (IMS, 1984). During this same period the government introduced initiatives in education that were intended to generate an enterprise culture. Moreover, the new national curriculum for schools was designed expressly to meet the needs of employers.

The merging of the Department for Education and Department of Employment into one ministry expressed how close the relationship between education and employment was deemed to be.

  • Government training initiatives

A further impetus for the government’s increasing involvement in VET during the 1980s and 1990s was the dramatic rise in unemployment among young people and adults, with a high incidence of long-term unemployment. Consequently, a plethora of initiatives in the fields of education and training were introduced.

These included schemes for training the unemployed, the establishment of bodies to initiate, foster and undertake training of direct relevance to employers (Training and Enterprise Councils now replaced by Learning and Skills Councils), the development of a comprehensive national framework of vocational qualifications, based partly on competencies, and national targets for training.

The following subsections will outline recent major elements of this context.

  • The competency approach

Chapter has identified competence as one of the outcomes of learning and development. Defined as the ability to apply knowledge and skills with understanding to a work activity and, importantly, assessed via performance, the notion has resonated with the values that have come to pervade the recent thinking of government policy-makers on VET, with their increasing emphasis upon outcomes rather than inputs into education and training.

During the later 1980s, therefore, competence and competency were adopted as a major building block in the new thinking about VET, and have now achieved wide currency in this field.However, these notions are not universally accepted, and there has been considerable debate about the way they have been conceptualised and used in practice (Kandola, 1996). A key issue for those critical of this approach is the status given to the knowledge underpinning the performance of skills.

The issue rumbles on in the various debates (e.g. Armstrong, 1996). Nevertheless, the competency approach has been a major innovation in the field of HRD, and has permeated it widely during the 1990s. Although it may be applied in different ways (Kandola, 1996), there is no sense yet that it is fragmenting or fading. Buttressed by its adoption in various government-led VET initiatives (see below), it is likely that it will withstand its critics for some time yet, and will therefore continue to influence the format of and philosophy underpinning much individual and organizational training and development activity.

  • A national framework of vocational qualifications

The establishment in 1986 of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) and the Scottish Vocational Educational Council (SCOTVEC) institutionalised the competency approach. These bodies provided a framework of National Vocational Qualifications (S/NVQs, or VQs) that accredited competencies across organisations so that an individual’s performance at work could be taken into account in an educational qualification.

In addition, GNVQs are an alternative to academic A levels for those preparing for the world of work. These bodies have now merged with the school curriculum and assessment authority to form the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). In the S/NVQs are statements ‘confirming that the individual can perform to a specified standard’ and that he or she ‘possesses the skills, knowledge and understanding which makes possible such performance in the workplace’ (Harrison, 1992: 28).

There are five levels of S/NVQ: from the most basic level through craft, technician and lowerlevel professional skills to the higher professional levels. The standards of competence for particular occupations and professions are, after a lengthy analytical and consultative process, set by industry lead bodies, which include representatives of employers and trade unions, as Townsend (1992) illustrates in the work of the Personnel Standards Lead Body, to ensure that the standards are relevant to work and are valued by employers.

There is a wide range of lead bodies, such as the Small Firms Lead Body and the Guidance and Counselling Lead Body. The comparable body in the field of management is the Management Charter Initiative (MCI), the work of which is described in Chapter 10. Many occupational areas are therefore embraced in the new qualifications framework: bouncers, caterers, translators, teachers etc.

Awarding bodies such as City and Guilds, RSA and BTEC have changed their awards to meet S/NVQ criteria. The nature of the lead bodies has evolved, and some have formed themselves into occupational standards councils (OSCs) for particular sectors of employment. For example, the Personnel Standards Lead Body, the Training and Development Lead Body and the Trade Union Sector Development Body merged in 1994 to become the Employment OSC.

This has not always been a smooth process, as Welch (1996a) indicates when reporting the eventual accreditation by NCVQ of the IPD’s new qualifications in personnel, training and development. The developments so far, however, have not been an unqualified success. There have been criticisms of definitions, purposes and methodology. There has been considerable frustration with their excessive bureaucracy and the ‘jargon-ridden language’ of the standards, and recognition of the need for the lead bodies or OSCs to provide external quality checks on the standard of assessment.

The controversy and debate surrounding this issue will undoubtedly exercise the minds of the interested parties for some time to come. Nevertheless, like the competency approach, the language and framework of VQs are influencing how individuals construct their own development, and how organizations approach and deliver HRD, and hence the nature of the learning environment they offer their employees.

  • Investors in People

Investors in People (IIP) was launched in 1991 and created out of the collaborative work of the National Skills Task Force (NSTF), CBI, Department of Employment, TUC and IPD (now CIPD). Since 1993 it has been a private company limited by guarantee – Investors in People UK (IIP UK, 1995; Taylor and Thackwray, 1995).

Based on ‘the practical experience of businesses that have improved their performance through investing in people’ (Employment Department Group, 1990), IIP gives a national framework that specifies ‘the principles which tie training and development activity directly to business objectives’, ensures that the ‘resources committed to training and development are put to the most effective use’, and provides ‘a clear benchmark of good practice . . . against which any organisation, large or small, can measure progress towards improved business performance’ (IIP UK, 1995: 1). This can clearly be tied into the kind of HRD strategy outlined earlier in this chapter.

IIP has been in existence for over a decade and boasts that over 25 000 organisations (or units within them) have achieved the national award, which represents more than a third of the working population (Spellman, 2002). Taylor and Thackwray (1995) report that organisations find considerable benefit in working for and achieving the standard. They quote a survey and case studies that suggest that the benefits derive from ensuring that training is strategic and relates to the organisation’s business needs.

In particular, organisations cite that working towards IIP helps to clarify and communicate business objectives, stimulates continuous improvement initiatives, increases the involvement of managers in individuals’ development, brings together some seemingly unrelated activities, and gives attention to administrative staff who are often otherwise overlooked. Taylor and Thackwray (1995: 30) also note that some organisations believe that through IIP they have increased profitability, efficiency, sales and income, and reduced costs.

Alberga (1997) in a survey in 1996 warns that there could be difficulties over rerecognition as organisations seek to retain the reward after three years: ‘The problem is that it enables people to let things slide and then drag them up just in time for the re- recognition process’. The achievement of this standard calls for considerable effort, but it is becoming clear that its benefits lie in the diagnostic and reflective process that it sets in train.

As we have already noted, despite effusive support for IIP from many quarters there have also been critics.

  • National training targets

Various VET initiatives have been pulled together by the setting of national training targets, first proposed by the CBI in 1989 to benchmark the UK’s skills base against that of other nations, and launched in 1991. The National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets (NACETT) came into being in 1993 to monitor and report on progress towards achievement of the targets, and in 2000 it was incorporated into the Learning and Skill’s Council’s corporate plan.

While targets were well received, Armstrong (1996) warned that the ‘qualification cuckoo should not be allowed to push competence-based learning out of the nest’. This is an issue for many commentators on the British VET policy. Welch (1996b) reports that ‘a quarter of large British firms’ do not see higher academic qualifications ‘as reliable indicators of skills’, and 40 per cent do not consider that they indicate ‘basic skills’.

The targets were ambitious, and despite wide consultation and updating in 1995 the revised targets for the year 2000 were not met. New and revised targets were set for 2002 and again fell short of intentions, although improvements were made in most categories. Targets have been revised in 2002 with the continuing aim of raising the UK’s international competitiveness by raising standards and attainment levels in education and training to world-class levels. This is to be achieved by the following training targets for 2006:

  1. Targets for 11-year-olds – Increase the percentage of 11-year-olds who achieve level 4 in each key stage 2 English and maths tests beyond 2002 targets of 80% in English and 75% in maths. (The actual targets had not been announced at the time of writing.)
  2. By 2007, 85% of 14-year-olds achieve level 5 in key stage 3 tests in English, maths and ICT and 80% in science. Increase the percentage of students gaining grades A–C in GCSEs.
  3. Increase by 3 percentage points the number of 19-year-olds achieving a qualification equivalent to NVQ level 2, compared to 2002, by 2004. Increase the number of 19- year-olds achieving a level 3 qualification from 51% in 2000 to 55% in 2004. Ensure that there is an apprenticeship place for everyone who wants one and meets the required standard.
  4. Increase participation towards 50% of those aged 18–30 by the end of the decade. Reduce the number of adults with numeracy and literacy problems by 750 000 by 2004.\
  5. Increase the percentage of adults attaining a level 3 qualification from 47% to 52% in 2004. Establish half of all colleges to be Centres of Vocational Excellence by 2003/4. (DfES, 2001)

Once again there is speculation whether the targets will be achieved. However, these targets also serve the important purpose of directing, motivating and reinforcing the various other VET initiatives already referred to in this chapter, so that what is emerging in the UK is a systematic, self-reinforcing framework for VET rather than, as hitherto, a patchwork of piecemeal initiatives. A common characteristic of the elements of this framework is the emphasis upon observable, tightly defined and often measurable outcomes. This, in some respects, contrasts with other contemporary developments.

For example, as noted in Chapter, in the fields of philosophy and the social sciences those (positivist) approaches that favour measurement are being increasingly challenged by those favouring interpretation; in organisations, multi-skilling and flexible working are to some extent eroding the traditional boundaries and definitions of jobs; while notions of total quality management and of the learning organisation are breaking down traditional internal and external organisational boundaries. This contrast prompts the question whether the underpinning philosophy of today’s VET will remain unchallenged for long, and what would become of the VET framework if its philosophy were undermined.

  • Labour government initiatives: building a VET framework

As we have already noted, the Labour government claims that one of its primary concerns has been education and training, and it visualises these as being fundamental tools to create a viable economic future for all in Britain in the twenty-first century. These are lofty but necessary ambitions, and – building on Conservative reforms – the Labour government has attempted to create a VET framework for all.

We have already noted that training and education targets have been set for school pupils, students, young employed 16–21-year-olds, adults and organisations. Building on the Dearing Report’s recommendations, attempts have been to harmonise diverse qualifications in the academic and technical worlds, with mixed results and some more development needed.Since Labour has come to office VET initiatives have been abundant. The following subsections briefly describe the major initiatives that have been instituted to date.

  • The New Deal

This initiative is an attempt to provide training for 18–24-year-olds who have been out of work for more than six months, and 25-year-olds and over who have been unemployed for longer than two years. The idea behind the scheme is to make the unemployed more employable by providing them with skills. It offers four options (Pickard, 1997):

  • a job subsidised for six months with an employer;
  • six months’ work with a governmental environment task force;
  • six months’ work with a voluntary sector employer;
  • a year’s full-time education and training for people who do not hold an NVQ level 2 or equivalent.

Scepticism has been expressed, partly because of the negative experiences of previous schemes such as YTS and ET, but also because of the failure of the Australian New Deal scheme, where employers were not enthusiastic about taking on the long-term unemployed because of ‘low skills, poor attitudes to work and low levels of motivation’ (Pickard, 1997: 34).

These are concerns that remain in the minds of members of the CBI and other employer bodies, but nevertheless they are willing to cooperate with the TUC and other bodies. The government has made provisions to overcome these predicted difficulties by proposing the following:

  • There will be a prolonged ‘gateway’ of up to four months’ intensive counselling for the unemployed before being presented to an employer.
  • Each individual will get an Employment Service case worker, who will stay with them throughout the programme.
  • Each client will have a ‘mentor’ – someone from the community or local company but independent of the scheme’s organisers – who can represent their interests.

The nationwide launch of the scheme took place in April 1998. Concerns have already been expressed about too much red tape, the low quality of the recruits, the lack of support from the Employment Service, and the fact that case workers have been overloaded with clients and do not have enough time to deal with individuals (Rana, 1999a: 14).

Further criticisms are that the scheme has not met the needs of single parents, and has failed ethnic groups – claims rebutted by Andrew Smith, Minister of State for Employment in 1999 (Smith, 1999: 33). A study of employers found that one in three have failed to train their New Deal recruits, and that 21 per cent had no training planned for them. ‘This is exactly what happened to YTS recruits and it discredited the scheme’, claims Nick Isles, an IPD representative (Rana, 1999b: 18).

At present the jury is still out, with supporters claiming that the New Deal has achieved far more than any previous scheme. If cooperation between the partners does break down, then the government may have to resort to more compulsory measures.

  • Learning and Skills Councils and the Small Business Service

From April 2001 TECs were replaced by Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs), and the Small Business Service replaced Business Links (bodies that promised training and development of local companies). LSCs also took over the role of National Training Organisations (NTOs).

NTOs were launched in 1998 to deal with training in sectors but in March 2002 their role was taken over by newly formed Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) which have more employer input. The rationale being, according to then Minister of Education, Estelle Morris that The role of LSCs is to The role of the Small Business Service will be There are 47 local LSCs and 45 Small Business franchises, their boundaries being co-terminous.

They are overseen by a national LSC that, among other things:

  • works to a three-year plan;
  • assesses national skills and learning needs;
  • allocates budgets to local LSCs;
  • sets strategy on attainment of the National Learning Targets;
  • secures information, advice and guidance for adults;
  • develops national partnerships with local authorities and local education authorities, the Employment Service, the University for Industry, NTOs, trade unions, new support services for young people, major and multi-site employers, and education and training providers.
  • Other VET measures

A number of other initiatives are worth mentioning, although space does not permit extensive information. They include the following. Sector skills councils will be created by business for business. Governments across the UK recognise that employers are best placed to identify skills gaps and to create strategies close to them. (People Management, 9 August 2001, p. 9) build a new culture of learning which will underpin national competitiveness and personal prosperity, encourage creativity and innovation and help build a cohesive society.

(DfEE, 1999) to provide a single gateway for all government programmes directed primarily at mainly small business . . . and it will have the right to monitor all and existing proposals for business support. (DfEE, 1999)

Modern apprenticeships

These are mainly for 16- and 17-year-old school leavers and training includes at least an NVQ at level 3, showing that the apprentice can do the job to the standard that industry and commerce require. Over 82 frameworks have been approved so far, from accountancy to warehousing. The scheme aims to cater for more than a quarter of young people by 2004–5. The CIPD claims that this target can only be reached

National traineeships

These are aimed at a lower level than modern apprenticeships, and are for school leavers from 16 upwards. They offer quality training to industry standards at NVQ level 2. They are designed by employers for employers. Trainees, like apprentices, can earn while they learn.

Learning Card

The Learning Card is issued to young people in their final year of compulsory education. It acts as a reminder to young leavers of their right to further learning and careers information and guidance. The card entitles holders to discounts from a number of organisations, such as BT, YHA, National Express, Letts and BSM. It also gives access to a Career Bank to help in the choice of careers.

Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning is an ill-defined concept, although its name suggests the encouragement of continuous learning for all throughout their lives. Various initiatives have been set up by the government in collaboration with universities, local authorities and employers to examine the possibilities of regional lifelong learning projects and support mechanisms. Local authorities have been cast in the leading role, but they have been sluggish in taking the initiative (Pollock, 1999).

By implication they will have to turn themselves into learning organisations, and one – Norwich, a pioneer in the initiative – calls itself a ‘Learning City’. One of the problems is that the lifelong learning brief maybe too wide and thus too amorphous to manage effectively. If the idea is to create a learning climate for citizens in general, then there needs to be a considerable degree of coordination of existing support mechanisms in cooperation with the various partners and local bodies.

Learning accounts

A cornerstone of the Labour government’s skills revolution was the creation of learning accounts. This voluntarist measure was implemented in favour of training levies with their air of compulsion. By 2002 these were being withdrawn (temporarily, claims the government) as a howl of complaints (over 8500) revealed a series of frauds perpetrated by a number of providers (Roberts, 2002b).

The aim had been to target people in most need of basic training. The programme had attracted two and half million learners who were given £150 each after contributing £25 from their own pocket. ‘This would allow individuals to take the first step up the learning ladder by enrolling on, say, an IT course for beginners or taking basic literacy skills’ (Littlefield and Welch, 1996: 5). This ‘Learn as You Earn’ proposal was ‘designed to give people the freedom to choose the training courses and skills which fit with their aspirations’ (Butters, 1996: 2). It also formed the basis for lifelong learning initiatives.

if employers realise the importance of this scheme to future skills needs. Modern apprenticeship is the only scheme for 14- to 19-year-olds that really integrates both on- and off-the-job learning. But research shows that the on-the-job element of the modern apprenticeship is often its Achilles heel.

University for Industry

The University for Industry was proposed in 1996 by the Labour Party and came into being in November 1999. Its aim is to prepare individuals for the rapid economic and social changes in the modern, more flexible world of work, where there are ‘weaker relationships between employers and employees’ (Hillman, 1996: v). Among its aims are to:

  • be the hub of a national learning network extending to workplaces, homes and local learning centres;
  • provide access to user-friendly services on the Internet and create links with tutors, experts and other learners;
  • commission new learning programmes in strategic areas;
  • sustain an accessible system of support and guidance services;
  • stimulate mass-marketing of learning opportunities.

An aim is to become a main support for lifelong learning. Another of its principal aims to this effect is to widen accessibility of learning opportunities, in terms of time, place and pace. This obviously suggests the use of individualised programmes on the Internet, CD-ROMs and distance learning initiatives, combined with local learning support mechanisms. Sixty eight Learndirect centres have been set up across England that will work with UfI to develop a new approach to the delivery of flexible learning.

  • Conclusion

The Labour government hopes that these VET initiatives will provide a framework for the encouragement and development of a learning atmosphere in the nation as a whole. Whether this is the case or not depends on the enthusiasm, funding and continuing importance that the government places on the overall strategy and its individual programmes and institutions. It also remains to be seen whether these become a number of disparate schemes desperately operating to keep afloat despite lack of funding and support at national level. They will also be a test as to the success of the voluntarist system that the Labour government has continued from its Conservative forebears.


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