Kick-off began at St James's Park, the legendary home of Newcastle United Football Club, only this time it wasn't a game of footie, but a discussion on achieving excellence through skills and education. Football was fast becoming the role model for the skills agenda. Manchester City FC and the Football Foundation had both proved to be visionary examples of how to succeed in this area at two previous round-table discussions. At this event, the fourth regional debate jointly organised by the New Statesman and Fellows' Associates, it looked like football would again emerge with the trophy. Seven years ago, Newcastle United decided to invest £1m in a state-of-the-art training centre. According to the learning centre's manager, Phil McBride, it now welcomes 300 adults and 800 children through its doors every week.
The minister for skills, Ivan Lewis, praised organisations in the north-east as "trailblazers" when it came to innovation in skills. And there was definitely agreement among the participants in the round table that there were real examples of regional bodies working in partnership, and employers working with training providers and communities, to make a difference. Lewis said that the government was now transferring the region's employer training pilots to the national skills programme, and he also stressed that the previous day's white paper made it absolutely clear that colleges and training providers had to change. "We're going to re-engineer the system to be employer-responsive, but also, wherever the individual is now in terms of their skill level, we will support them to get wherever they need to go," Lewis said.
Brian Moore, managing director of Smart & Kleen Laundries, agreed that greater efficiency could be achieved in the current business climate only by a well-trained workforce - something he had learned from his own experience. Moore left school at 17 to work in the mining industry and, collecting a business studies degree, an MQB certificate in electrical engineering and two HNDs on the way, founded his company in 1998. Smart & Kleen has since received training and support from Newcastle College to help employees develop literacy and numeracy skills - yet Moore admits that "aiming for excellence seems simple, but is very difficult to achieve".
The debate did seem to be going round in circles for a while: employers were impatient with education and training providers for their perceived lack of responsiveness, while training providers, for their part, felt that some employers were being unreasonable in their expectations. "There's a kind of collision between flexibility at the demand end and a lack of flexibility at the supply end," explained Steve Rankin, director of CBI North-East. However, he applauded the Newcastle United learning centre initiative, describing it as "an employer-led, publicly funded campaign to raise educational aspirations in the region". And Kevin Rowan, the TUC's northern regional secretary, was hugely optimistic about the engagement of employers. "Building on the success in the north-east is the right way forward," he said.
Pat Ritchie, strategy and development director for the regional development agency One NorthEast, said that the RDA had set up discussions with employers which had shaped the direction of the regional skills partnership. She urged people to develop that dialogue with employers rather than expect a big supply-side change all at once.
Lewis believed that employers should not be too impatient. "It's too soon for employers to see the changes they are asking for," he said. "The maximum age of a child who's been through our literacy and numeracy strategy is 14, and none of them is in the workplace yet."
But Geoff Spuhler, from the Walkers Snack Foods learning centre, did not agree. "I can see the benefits already. We're a large employer and 80 per cent of our courses are Skills for Life. We have Caterpillar, another huge local employer, coming to us and asking us how to set up a learning centre and how to engage employees. We're inundated with demand," he said.
Martyn Warwick, Usdaw's lifelong-learning project worker, also pointed to another successful example in the region: Cheviot Foods, where, he said, the company had been running Skills for Life courses for two or three years.
But, referring to the white paper, Ann Howe, an education and skills consultant, pointed out that we could not choose to overlook the fact that 10 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds were not in any form of education, employment or training. "That's a huge issue," she said. "There's been a lot of progress, as we've heard here today - there are a lot more people with a lot more qualifications - but there's still a fairly stubborn core that we can't afford to ignore." She emphasised that it was not something that could be fixed in six months. "We can't say, 'Great, we've cracked it. Let's move on to something else.' It's about building on the good things we've already got," she said.
Rankin agreed, and gave an example of where this kind of initiative was taking place. "A couple of years ago, the Esh Group in Durham forged a relationship with a big local comprehensive and it is now a very successful partnership," he said. "It's like an educational supply line, so every year they guarantee 50 high-quality work-experience places and 20 jobs. The headteacher says that she can measure the improvement in educational attainment, exam results and motivation among the staff and the pupils that's happened in those two years."
"The task now is to move people from the low-skill, low-pay equilibrium into a higher-value situation," said Lewis. "If you invest in the skills of the people who work for you, you will be more successful in business than your competitors. That's the message we want to get across." But he insisted that part of the problem was people getting aspirations mixed up with expectations. "The two are very different," he said. "A head of lifelong learning in Easington told me that kids in his area had low aspirations, so I thought I'd do a tour of the schools to find out why. I asked them what careers they wanted to do. They didn't have low aspirations at all. The problem was that the community - employers, educationalists and families - and others like it, have incredibly low expectations of what they can do."
Many of the round-table participants felt the press and media should play a more constructive part in reporting these issues, but Ritchie did not agree: "If we're talking about the 10 per cent of young people who don't engage in any form of education, then they definitely don't read the papers or watch the news. You've got to find different ways of engaging with that group, whether it's through the internet, text-messaging, youth services, or whatever." She believed that it was important to convince employers to get engaged with schools, but that equally, we should not underestimate the need to convince schools about the value of engaging with employers. "It's not necessarily a given that all schools will automatically see the benefits of developing the type of partnership that the Esh Group has created, and I think there is work to be done across the region to make that clear," she said.
Rowan was optimistic. "Nobody's saying that the challenge ahead isn't going to be very difficult, but in 2003, 750,000 people got Skills for Life qualifications who didn't previously have them. If the figures are the same for 2004, 2005 and 2006, we won't be talking about Skills for Life being a huge challenge. The challenge will be further up the skills escalator," he said. "I think we all have different views about what the government should do with the skills agenda in the next two weeks or two years, but we ought to recognise that a lot has changed and a lot of progress has been made, and that ought to be a source of optimism for us all."
Nick Owen(Chair) - Broadcaster
Pam Eccles - Executive director, Learning and Skills Council, Tees Valley
Ann Howe - Consultant in education and skills
Henry Kelly - Co-ordinator, NE Skills for Life adult basic skills strategy unit
Ivan Lewis - Minister for skills and vocational education, DfES
Phil McBride - Learning centre manager, Newcastle United FC
Brian Moore - Managing director, Smart & Kleen Laundries
Jan Novitzky - Regional learning co-ordinator, South Yorkshire, NHSU (NHS University)
Steve Rankin - Regional director, CBI North-East
Pat Ritchie - Director of strategy and development, One NorthEast
Kevin Rowan - Northern regional secretary, TUC
Geoff Spuhler - Learning centre manager, Walkers Snack Foods
Fiona Tuffs - Training development director, North-East Chamber of Commerce
Martyn Warwick - Lifelong-learning project worker, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers
Patricia Whaley - Regional development officer, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education