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Wolf report sells vocational trainers short

Last month’s Wolf report made interesting reading for those of us looking to train young people and regenerate communities.

The report called for a major shake-up of vocational training, most of which it claimed had ‘little to no labour market value’. While the first reaction of many was to dismiss the report of hand because of its unrelenting negativity, I think it made several valid points; namely ensuring work-based learning is as targeted as possible and supporting the long-overdue notion of subsidising apprenticeships.

What the report made plain is that vocational training could be delivered more effectively in some areas and few could argue with that premise. As chief executive of a social enterprise in the training sector, I am always looking for ways to improve opportunities for our learners and so boost the North Staffordshire economy.

However, where I really thought the Wolf report missed the mark was in failing to acknowledge the great work that’s already going on in communities across the UK.

A recent Ofsted inspection at PM Training listed several ‘outstanding’ aspects of our performance. What was most satisfying was that our links with schools, employers, community groups and other partners was one of these areas.

I think this community approach to vocational learning could be a model for other training providers to follow.

For example, our links with schools includes work with and support for primary schools, to ensure we are well known throughout whole communities, not just known among those who are 14 years and older.

Obviously we are even more involved with high schools – speaking in school lessons and bringing students into PM Training to experience our workshops and facilities – but our wider community engagement is important.

Elsewhere, we work very closely with companies, business groups and local authorities to understand the needs of the business community.

During National Apprentice Week in February we brought many of these organisations from across North Staffordshire together at a single event to strengthen our partnerships across the region. The result is that we can now offer our trainees even more diverse work placement opportunities at a broader range of businesses.

I believe this community-led approach is what turns a good training provider into one that can successfully transform communities, and where trainees don’t just gain a qualification but actually become work-ready and able to fill skills gaps in the local economy.

Agreeing with the Wolf report, Education Secretary Michael Gove said: ‘The system that we have inherited is very damaging. It is unfair for children and it is harming the economy.’

Chancellor George Osborne also commended Prof Wolf’s ‘impressive report’ during his Budget, when he gave further details.

‘The government is committed to funding new University Technical Colleges which will provide 11 to 19 year olds with vocational training that is among the best in the world,’ he said. ‘The curriculum is being developed in close co-ordination with both local universities and leading employers.’

I would urge caution and reiterate an often used phrase – ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. After all, working ‘in close co-ordination with leading employers’ is exactly what we already do.

Of course some areas of the existing system can be improved, but we don’t need to look far to find good practice in communities across the UK.

If the government is concerned about the funding of trainees, for example, perhaps it should speak to those in the community who provide learners with a free breakfast on a daily basis, or those charities – like the Realise Foundation through which PM Training reinvests its profits – that already subsidise apprenticeships.

And if Mr Osborne is concerned about whether training is targeted enough, he would be well advised to visit a social enterprise like PM Training, where the first four weeks of all our courses are spent getting ‘behind the eyes’ of each learner and understanding their personality.

This is the approach we take and it results in 95% of trainees who positively progress with us going on to a full-time apprenticeship. No doubt there are other centres of excellence too and I would call on Michael Gove, George Osborne and Professor Wolf to examine these before dismissing the value that current vocational training providers can add to our communities and economy.

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