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The results from the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation an d Development (OECD) Literacy and Numeracy Survey published towards the end of last year, makes for depressing reading. In the critical 16-24 age category out of 24 of the most highly developed nations surveyed, the UK ranked 22nd for Literacy and 21st for Numeracy. Moreover, we were the only country in the survey where the age group nearing retirement performed better than the 16-24 group. So whilst other nations progress, we appear to be going backwards.

Even more depressing were the responses of our politicians. These seem to fall into two camps:

The survey methodology is questionable and the results aren’t valid (Labour)

• It’s all the fault of the previous government (Coalition)

In fact, neither response is valid. These results simply echo many previous surveys which have highlighted the fact that we face a skills crisis in the UK and the problem has been there for the last 20 years, so no political party can escape responsibility.

20 years ago these figures would have been of interest but arguably little value. However, today we operate in a global economy and the competition for skills is as fierce as the competition for business. Nothing could demonstrate this issue more clearly than the situation at Dysons. Sir James Dyson is arguably one of our most successful entrepreneurs. His company have just issued another excellent set of results with both revenue and profits up by nearly 20% and if the reaction of my wife is anything to go by, his new hand-held cleaner is going to sell like hot cakes.

As a result, Dysons are looking to recruit more engineers, split between their UK headquarters and their plants in Malaysia and Singapore. Sir James reckons he’ll have no problem recruiting in the Far East, but will struggle to find the 300 people he needs in the UK. Even more worrying is the fact that he says he has the technology and ideas that would enable him to recruit a further 2000 people in the UK if he could only find people with the relevant skills.

Time For Action – Not Just Words

So what are we doing to address this crisis? Well, the government will point to changes in the curriculum, more robust examinations and a focus on basic skills but I am not convinced that this will have the impact they are hoping for. We are in serious danger of relying upon “exams” as the sole measure of performance rather than a useful indicator of progress. The Council for Science and Technology, which provides strategic advice to the government, have recently warned that practical experiments in science are being dropped in favour of concentrating on exam preparation. As the council says, this would be like “studying literature without reading books”.

At the same time, the government is proposing to publish “earnings tables” which will rank future earning potential against different subjects. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see this working either. Whilst teenagers may be concerned about their future job prospects, I don’t believe they lie awake at night pondering whether they will earn more by studying Maths instead of French. I became a scientist not because I thought it would make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, but because I had great teachers in the subjects, enjoyed experiments and most importantly, my mates were all doing the same subjects.

Do We Need To Re-engineer Our Approach to Skills?

So what should we being doing? Clearly the basic building blocks of English and Maths have to be in place and few people would disagree that pupils should continue to study these subjects if they fail to achieve a decent GCSE grade first time round. However, for whatever reason, these young people are likely to have had a negative experience of English and Maths and probably see themselves as failures at least in these subjects. Simply subjecting them to more of the same is unlikely to have any impact. As an old mentor of mine used to say – “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. Unless we radically rethink the learning experience, we will be in danger of producing failing 17 year-olds rather than failing 16 year-olds.

So we need to find new ways of encouraging young people to engage with these subjects. That means using technology such as mobile which they are familiar and delivering the learning in an innovative way which provides understanding rather than simply knowledge and which relates the subjects to the workplace in which young people will hopefully be working.

I believe that Functional Skills could be the answer. Not surprising you might say from a company which specialises in this area, but the pressure for Functional Skills is not coming from training providers, it is being led by employers who see the qualification as being far more relevant to the workplace and therefore of more value than the academically focused GCSEs.

Whatever steps we are going to take to address the skills crisis that prevents one of our best entrepreneurs from recruiting more UK staff, we have to act now. Tweaking the exam system and publishing “earnings tables” isn’t going to solve the problem. We need a fundamental rethink of the way we develop a workforce with the appropriate skills if we are genuinely going to compete against the world.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills


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A couple of weeks ago, the government published its Apprenticeship Reform Implementation Plan. The plan was in response to the recommendations made in the excellent Richard Review. The latter is a must-read document for anyone who has an interest in vocational training. It is concise (just 19 pages ), well- constructed and easy to read. As such, it’s a wonderful antidote to the usual verbose, tedious and seemingly never-ending tracts written by faceless mandarins and which normally comprise a government “Review”.

Implementing The Richard Review

In essence, the Richard Review recommends that employers should be at the heart of an Apprenticeship programme whose quality and standing should continue to improve. Whilst some commentators have expressed concerns that employers should have such a powerful role in the programme, I wholeheartedly welcome the findings of the report. If Apprenticeships are going to continue to develop into a genuine alternative career path to academic training, then it makes sense that employers, who understand their business sector and their future skills requirements, should be playing a central role. As such, I applaud the government’s decision to implement the recommendations in full.

GCSEs Are Not The Only Answer

However (and there is a huge however coming up here), I am deeply concerned that the government has made a massive blunder with regards to future Maths and English requirements for would-be Apprentices. Few people would deny that we have a basic skills crisis in the UK. The most recent government data showed that nearly half the adult working population have the numeracy levels required by an 11 year old and external data such as the recent OEDC survey, placed the UK close to the bottom in numeracy and literacy skills amongst the top 24 developed countries in the world.

Academic v Vocational Careers

Clearly we have to change this situation if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace, but equally, it’s essential that the changes we make will have a real impact. As a starting point, we need to be clear that young people now have a clear choice when it comes to drawing up a career plan. They can go down an Academic route which will take them via A-Levels through to University or they can go down a Vocational route whereby they develop skills and experience (probably via an Apprenticeship framework) through on-job training.
These two routes are very different and as such require an individual approach to basic skill development. Until recently, this appeared to be government thinking as well as mine. GCSE’s in Maths and English were the appropriate qualifications for the Academic pathway whilst Functional Skills provided an alternative (but equal) qualification for people taking the Vocational option.

However in the last few weeks, the government appears to have rapidly changed its position. In the Apprenticeship Reform Implementation Plan, they state quite clearly that once the reformed GCSEs are introduced, it is:

“Our ambition that all apprentices will use GCSEs rather than Functional Skills to meet the English and maths requirements in Apprenticeships”

This is a hugely significant change in policy and one which could potentially prove to be disastrous. Moreover, It seems to have been implemented with very little consultation with employers (who let’s remember are now supposed to be the beating heart of Apprenticeship programmes)

The Functional Skills Alternative

Functional Skills were brought in following the damning Wolf Report on standards of numeracy and literacy, as specific English and maths qualifications for learners taking a vocational career path. They have only been fully operational for a little over 12 months so as yet, there is no statistical data as to their impact. However, having delivered Functional Skills for nearly two years to a variety of large employers, all our evidence to date has been that they have been a huge success. Our clients report that their learners are more motivated (having achieved a real qualification as opposed to the worthless Key Skills), more likely to complete their Apprenticeship and more likely to continue their learning journey.

All of this could be put at risk by the government’s seeming obsession with GCSEs. Don’t get me wrong – the planned changes to GCSEs are timely and appropriate and will, I believe, bring about a desperately needed rise in standards. However, they are Academic qualifications and designed for learners choosing that path. Functional Skills on the hand, were specifically developed for learners taking the Vocational pathway. GCSEs are designed primarily for classroom learning over a minimum 12 month period whereas Functional Skills can be delivered in the workplace over a much more intense but shorter period. GCSEs are examined twice a year whereas Functional Skills exams can be taken at any time that best suits the learner.

Many of the learners we work with have failed their GCSEs in Maths and English. For whatever reason, the system of classroom learning failed to develop their skills in these key areas. Functional Skills has provided them with a lifeline and an opportunity to repair their confidence and show that they can apply these skills to many different work situations. Are we now to tell these young people that the only way they can complete an Apprenticeship in the future is if they return to the classroom environment and revert to an academic qualification in which they have already failed? I simply don’t believe that they will be prepared to do this and as such, the whole Apprenticeship project could be put at serious risk.

An Alternative Solution

So my message to the government is very clear. Accept that academic and vocational career paths are vastly different and require their own unique approach, assessment methods and qualifications. By all means seek to raise the standards for GCSEs but accept at the same time that they are an academic qualification designed for people on that career path. Functional Skills should not be side-lined into the Traineeship model, but should remain as the “gold standard” for learners on a vocational journey. To misquote Jeanette Winterson – GCSEs are not the only fruit.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Nick Linford and his colleagues at the excellent FEWeek appear to have uncovered a rather worrying trend in relation to pre-requirements for some Apprenticeship programmes being offered by some FE colleges and private training providers (PTPs). Specifically, candidates for certain frameworks are required to have a GCSE Grade A-C in English (and sometimes Maths as well) before being considered for a place on an Apprenticeship programme.

Of course one could argue that as Apprenticeships become more widely accepted as a genuine alternative to an academic University education , then supply and demand will dictate the level of pre-entry qualifications and that the best FE institutions will, like their counterparts in the HE sector, only offer places to the best qualified students.

That may well be the case, but one of the colleges demanding GCSE A-C grades as pre-qualification is a Midlands college, which is still reeling from a disastrous Ofsted Inspection a few months ago which classified their Apprenticeship programme as “inadequate”. So why would such a provider suddenly feel they could attract only the best-qualified candidates and could ignore the 400,000 young people without these qualifications?

I suspect that the answer may sadly be related to Functional Skills (FS) which are now a compulsory component of all Apprenticeship frameworks. However, students who already hold a Grade A-C in the relevant subject (English or Maths) are exempt from the Functional Skills equivalent.

Whilst the introduction of FS into Apprenticeships was a controversial move, most experts in the field now agree that it has significantly raised the value of the programme and unlike its Key Skills predecessor, it is giving students a proper foundation in these basic skills together with a genuine understanding as to how these skills can be effectively used in the workplace. However, equally it is a far more challenging course to deliver than Key Skills and requires significant amounts of contact time with a properly qualified tutor. Whilst funding levels have increased, it is still a labour-intensive delivery programme and therefore certainly not the most profitable component of the Apprenticeship programme.

And thereby, I believe, lies the problem. Many providers have struggled to deliver FS effectively for a variety of reasons, not least their failure to invest in properly qualified staff and innovative delivery methods. By recruiting learners who have GCSE A-C grades, they no longer need to deliver FS and can focus on the more profitable and easier to deliver components of the Apprenticeship framework.

What Are The Consequences?

If this trend continues, there are two consequences. Firstly, almost half of the current 1 million GREETs (Getting Ready for Education, Employment and Training) will be excluded from directly applying for Apprenticeships. That seems grossly unfair and a betrayal of the principles of Apprenticeships which were about offering an alternative career opportunity and a second chance for young people without a portfolio of GCSEs

Secondly, our experience having delivered FS successfully in many large corporate businesses, is that employers much prefer this qualification to the equivalent GCSEs. The latter are academic qualifications which are taught in a way that is designed to get students through an exam (sadly because that seems to be the key way in which we measure school performance). Functional Skills, on the other hand enable learners to apply their knowledge to a variety of real workplace situations and to understand how they can adapt it to new situations which they might meet in the future. As such it is far more relevant as a real vocational qualification and of far more value both to the learner and the employee.

I passionately believe that Apprenticeships should remain open to as many people as possible, no matter what their existing qualifications. We have proved consistently that it is possible to successfully train learners to achieve a Level 2 in FS (equivalent to GCSE A-C grade) and we have seen those same learners progress further within their companies. It would be a real tragedy if that opportunity was lost to them.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Imagine for a minute that you are a Sales Director with a medium-sized company. Following a series of field visits and observations, you reach the conclusion that your team needs some additional training in negotiation skills. So you sit down with your HR Director or Head of Learning & Development and either agree to bring in a company to run a “training course” or perhaps reach into your company library of e-learning material, pull out the course marked “Negotiation” and ensure that your team complete the course. Job Done.

That is a scenario which probably takes place many times a day in organisations across the country. Unfortunately, the likelihood of seeing any improvement in skills or changes in behaviour is probably close to zero and large sums of money will have been poured down the proverbial drain.

Why am I so confident about that? Basically, because in the workplace, people simply no longer learn much through formal training. That’s not simply my opinion. It is based on huge amounts of research, much of it carried out and compiled by Charles Jennings, a global expert in learning. Charles has developed a concept which he calls the “70:20;10 Framework” to explain his theory. The research carried out with over 150 companies worldwide shows that:

* 70% of workplace learning is experiential ie, people learning through experience and their own investigations and then using that knowledge to develop their skills

* 20% of learning is “social”. ie, learning through either formal or informal interactions with colleagues

* 10% of learning is “formal” ie, classroom-style training or eLearning courses.

Let’s be absolutely clear, this isn’t an opinion or a theory about how learning might change, it’s about what is actually happening now.

So should FE college Principals and eLearning company CEO’s be having sleepless nights on seeing this data? Well “yes”, if they believe it is nothing more than some academic mumbo jumbo which may or may not happen in 30 years time and which they can comfortably ignore. However, more forward-thinking leaders may see this as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

The reason I believe that is because I do not see “formal training” disappearing completely. It may only represent 10% of learning but especially in areas of compliance, it’s a very important 10%. I do not want to be served in a restaurant by someone who is learning basic hygiene standards as they go, nor do I want to fly in an airplane, where the pilot is learning about the use of an altimeter from his mate in the cockpit.

The second point to remember is that these 3 different types of learning experience do not fall into strict silos surrounded by insurmountable barriers. Nobody wakes up and says “I think I will do some learning today and 20% of it is going to be social. When I’ve done that, I must do some eLearning in order to get my 10% of formal training”. A far more likely scenario is a “blended “ solution where different types of learning are moulded into a single experience.

This is very much the approach we have adopted towards the delivery of Functional Skills. Many of our learners have, for one reason or another, had a negative experience of learning and education in general and there seems little point in simply subjecting them to more of the same. So whilst we use some excellent eLearning software from our partners at Guroo to provide the “formal” part of our training and deliver some basic underpinning knowledge, we encourage our learners to reflect on their experiences in the workplace and use these to embed their learning and gain understanding.

Moreover, we are working on a number of different initiatives to encourage “social” learning. These range from Webinars to the use of different social networking platforms to raise issues and share solutions. Our objective is to create a single learning experience which brings together all the components of the 70:20;10 framework. It’s a long journey and we are continually seeking to evolve and develop our methodology, but our results and our exceptional pass rates speak for themselves and we are convinced that this is the right way forward.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Talent Management

As someone who always thought that a “stakeholder” was a person who held the stick whilst the vampire met their maker, I have held a long-standing aversion to “management-speak”. I guess it probably started when I was first told that it was “time to pick the low-hanging fruit” and it reached its height when a colleague suggested that we adjourn a meeting for a “bio break” (sadly, I kid you not!).

So when the term “Talent Management” first started to creep into the management lexicon a decade ago, my antennae were bristling. Surely this was just new jargon to cover a set of processes which any decent HR function had been following since they morphed from being the Personnel Department. However, if that was bad enough, the situation soon became far worse when software companies started jumping on the new bandwagon and convincing us that the only effective way to manage talent was through the purchase of a “System”. And thus were a range of incredibly expensive and complex “Talent Management Systems” inflicted on organisations across the Western World.

Why Has the TMS Failed to Deliver?

Sadly, the “TMS” is now being revealed for the dinosaur which I always believed it to be. I think there are two key reasons for this.

Firstly, the dreaded “Annual Performance Review” is a central plank of most TMS’s and the structure around which “talent development” plans are hung. The concept of Annual Appraisals is now being challenged across the whole HR sector. I would go further and suggest that not only has it failed totally to raise individual performance, it has probably done untold damage to both individuals and their organisations. Invariably, both parties enter an Appraisal poorly prepared and hoping it can be completed as quickly as possible. The result is a mediocre box-ticking exercise which leaves everyone unsatisfied and rarely if ever results in behavioural change. The fact that Michael Gove now appears to want to introduce this anachronism into the teaching profession fills me with dread.

What of course we really need is effective and continuous “Performance Management”, a much more informal and less rigid practice which enables people to develop their skills through a wide range of different processes of which manager feedback is just one small component. Unfortunately, most TMS’s are far too rigid to track employee progress in this way.

Secondly, the TMS fails to deal with the very rapid changes which are taking place in the way in which we learn. The TMS tends to point employees in the direction of formal training programmes which will supposedly assist in their “development”. However, recent surveys suggest that less than 20% of workplace learning is now acquired through formal (whether classroom-based or eLearning) programmes. People now learn socially, informally or collaboratively and there are far more flexible and effective ways of capturing and tracking this learning than via a rigid TMS.

Is Talent Management Still Important?

So I believe we need to forget about Talent Management Systems and revert to thinking about what Talent Management really means. If it’s about recruiting the very best people, providing them with the appropriate skills and opportunities to learn and retaining them in the business, then of course it is more important than ever. Globally, we face a huge skills crisis and the task of finding and retaining talented people has become critical for most organisations.
I don’t believe we will achieve that by investing in Talent Management Systems. Instead, we need to focus on the drivers which persuade Generation Y (who will soon make up the majority of the workforce) to join and stay in a business. That’s about values and culture, genuine engagement and empowerment and satisfying and rewarding work. Does anyone know of a TMS which is based around that concept? if not, then let’s start thinking outside of the box and adopt a different approach to the way we manage our talent.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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The phrase “Flipped Classroom” is rapidly becoming a standard term within the educational dictionary. Just in case you are still out of the loop, here is a brief resume of the concept. In olden times, the “teacher” was the fountain of all knowledge and the channel through which this was imparted to students. That knowledge was then embedded (hopefully!) in homework.

But the birth of the Internet meant that knowledge was now available from many different sources from Google Search to Khan Academy videos. So more and more teachers are now “flipping “the process. Old-style“Teaching” is done out of school hours and the classroom is used for one to one support and to check and assess understanding. More importantly, flipping the classroom gives teachers the opportunity to move learners from lower-level thinking (remembering ) to higher levels (Analysing, evaluating, creating)

The concept makes so much sense that it seems relevant to ask whether it is being mirrored in the workplace. The answer I am afraid is that sadly that is often not the case. Despite the fact that numerous surveys show that workers now prefer informal and social learning , the workplace is still dominated by “trainers” clinging bravely to their powerpoint decks and standalone e-learning courses often used to tick compliance boxes. I am not denying the ability of individual trainers to impart knowledge effectively nor am I denigrating the use of e-learning material to effect the same result. My concern is that this invariably becomes the end of the learning process rather than the beginning. As such, I believe we are missing out on a huge opportunity to tap into the potential which exists within the workforce.

So I believe it is time to “Flip The Workplace” and for L&D professionals to rethink their whole approach to people development. Of course the process starts with some sort of knowledge transfer. But there are so many different ways in which that can be achieved. These range from a chat with a colleague, via becoming a member of a project team, through to e-learning, You Tube, Google and dozens of other pathways.

Once that basic knowledge is in place, the real learning can start. Trainers are transformed from knowledge experts into coaches, mentors and facilitators. Learners start to understand how the knowledge they have acquired can be used in different situations. They can now learn to think at a higher level, analysing issues more effectively and creating new solutions to existing problems.

Let’s just use an example to make my point. Nowadays, most Health & Safety training is carried out using e-learning. Course done, box ticked, compliance achieved, employer happy. But think of the value to customers, employer and employee if, when a problem occurred, the first response of the employee wasn’t “Oops!” but instead to work out the reasons for the problem and to propose new solutions.

That, I believe, is where we should be seeking to take workplace learning. At Creative Learning Partners, we genuinely try to adopt this approach in our delivery of Functional Skills. We use e-learning, but purely for imparting knowledge – not as the whole solution. We would argue that the real value of our approach comes afterwards when we work with learners to adapt and functionalise that knowledge to meet different situations. There is still a lot more we want to do in this area and we don’t for one minute, believe that we yet have all the answers, but we are convinced that by “flipping the workplace” , our learners are achieving far more and are much better prepared to make a genuine contribution to their organisations.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Last week, the government published its long-awaited plans for the much hyped Traineeship programme, designed to provide a new path into the workplace for the nearly 1million young adults who are currently classified as GREETs (Getting Ready for Education, Employment or Training). The framework, to be completed within 6 months, comprised a robust and structured work placement, a set of basic employability skills and Functional Skills in English and Maths up to Level 2 (equivalent to GCSE A-C grade).

The programme was designed largely in response to concerns expressed by employers that they were unable to fill existing vacancies because the applicants simply didn’t possess the basic skills which they felt to be essential if they were to succeed. Traineeships have been subject to an extensive consultation process during the last 4 months and we were very pleased to be given the opportunity to contribute to that process.

So now that we finally have some detailed plans available, what conclusions can we draw about the likely success of the programme?

Employers’ Role is Vital

Firstly, I am delighted to see that employers will play a key role in the delivery of Traineeships. This scheme will only work if employers get behind it and if it gives learners the skill set they require to gain a job and develop a career. It is right therefore that employers should be the beating heart of the scheme and can ensure that traineeships deliver what is required in their sector. My hope is that Traineeships will provide the missing first link in the Apprenticeship programme and that successful learners will go on not just to get a job, but to start a career.

Functional Skills is a Key Component

Secondly, I am very pleased that Functional Skills in English and Maths are clearly going to be a central component of Traineeships. As a specialist Functional skills provider, this is perhaps not surprising but it is pleasing to have our view that these core skills are critical for future success, confirmed by the government.

I am equally pleased that the government has taken on feedback and no longer expects Trainees to achieve a Level 2 in Functional Skills. The wording from the original discussion document has been changed to “working towards a Level 2” and this subtle but important modification makes a lot of sense. We have to accept that many people starting a Traineeship will be lacking in confidence and motivation having had a negative experience with these subjects at school. Our challenge, which we are happy to accept, is to prove that learning English and Maths can be fun and valuable but we need more time than a Traineeship will provide to help these people to achieve the equivalent of a GCSE A-C grade in both subjects. We’ll tackle that one when they start their Apprenticeship programme.

But What About 19-24 Year Olds?

So why not three cheers? Well, I do have one serious concern and that is the fact that initially, Traineeships will only be available for 16-18 year olds and for learners with special difficulties up to the age of 25. Whilst it is sad and worrying that any young adult is classified as a GREET, surely the priority is those slightly older people in the 19-24 year old cohort, who have probably been out of work or education for a longer period and whose life chances are slipping away even faster than their younger compatriots.

Whilst the government has signalled its intention to address this group next year, I think a real opportunity has been lost. The issue, as ever, is probably funding. 16-18 year old Traineeships will be funded from existing work study programmes but there is no equivalent pot of money for older learners and the SFA will no doubt rightly claim that their budgets are fully allocated. However, governments have a habit of suddenly finding additional funds when the need is really pressing and I think that the launch of such an important programme, warranted a loosening of the purse strings.

But Let’s End on a Positive Note

Notwithstanding those concerns, I am delighted that Traineeships have arrived and my congratulations to Matthew Hancock, the Skills Minister, for turning an idea into a fully operational scheme in such a short period of time. We look forward to working with our corporate clients to make the scheme a real success. This cannot simply be a question of massaging the unemployment figures. We have to see it as a genuine opportunity to provide as many young people as possible with the real chance of a fulfilling job and career.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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