So sang Coldplay but when it comes to key employment skills, they may have a point. Every 4 years, the much respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation an d Development (OECD) carries out a series of global tests in maths, science and reading/writing for pupils across the developed world.

In the latest tests, carried out recently, an average of 4% of pupils in all countries were classified as “academic all-rounders” having gained top marks in all 3 disciplines. The good news is that in the UK, the average was 4.6%. placing us just above the international average. The bad news, is that we were significantly behind many countries in the Far East such as Singapore (12.3%), and Japan and Hong Kong (8.4%). In parts of China the figure was nearly 15% and interestingly in Finland, with its fascinating exam-free education system, the figure was 8.4%.

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 gf



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


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


This blog was first published by Westminster Briefing and many thanks to them for doing so.

I have always believed that Apprenticeships were not so much about a qualification, but more an opportunity for young unemployed people not just to get a job, but to develop a successful career. Many of these people are, for whatever reason, carrying a negative experience of education and Apprenticeships have represented a chance to re-engage with them and show that learning can be both valuable and fun.

However, I always felt that the Apprenticeship ladder, now stretching through to Level 6 and 7 qualifications, was missing a vital first rung. Last year, when the government quite rightly implemented a series of quality improvements to the Apprenticeship framework, the bar was set even higher.

I was therefore delighted when at the end of 2012, the government announced a consultation process for the proposed Traineeship programme. Here I felt was that vital missing link and the key to unlocking the potential of Apprenticeships. The suggested content of the course – robust work experience, employability skills and a focus on Functional Skills in English and Maths – seemed totally appropriate. It was also clear that employers would become the beating heart of the programme. This was a proposal which seemed sensible and timely in light of the recently published Richard Review of Apprenticeships. Moreover, rather than the procrastination and continued delays which blighted the implementation of Functional Skills, the government seemed committed to having the programme up and running within a rapid if demanding timeframe.

So far, so good. But sadly, since the plans were published early in May this year, concerns and confusion have started to creep into what should have been a very straightforward concept. Firstly, the government chose to initially limit Traineeships to 16-18-year-old learners. Like many of my colleagues across the sector, I was bitterly disappointed by this decision. Whilst it barely seems fair to seek priorities amongst GREETS (I prefer “Getting Ready” to the negative connotation of NEETS – “Not in Education, Employment or Training”), surely it is the 19+ age group that is most vulnerable, most disillusioned and most likely to become unemployable without the appropriate skill training?

So when the government reversed this decision as part of the recent Spending Review, there was widespread relief and a feeling that a level playing field had now been set. It was therefore particularly frustrating to be presented with a revised Framework for Delivery document shortly thereafter. This was because the release of the framework revealed that eligibility criteria for 19-24 year olds would be more demanding than for 16-18 year olds, with learners in the former group deemed ineligible for Traineeship funding if they had already achieved a Level 2 qualification.

Leaving aside the flawed rationale behind these latest restrictions, which appear to suggest that for some reason 16-18 year olds are more likely to need to complete a traineeship, these differentials in learner eligibility will simply plant more confusion at a time when clarity is desperately needed. There is common agreement that employers are central to the success of Traineeships and our experience, having worked with a wide variety of major companies, is that they want programmes which are simple and straightforward to manage and which do not disadvantage specific groups of learners.

It is particularly ironic that these latest restrictions were made public the day after Nick Clegg announced a review of options available for 16-24 year olds, following the release of a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research. This found that the plethora of existing schemes was failing to deliver sustainable results. By adding unnecessary restrictions to Traineeships, I believe we run the danger of simply adding to this list.
Whilst I don’t believe that Traineeships will provide a cure-all-ills panacea for the problem of youth unemployment, I remain convinced that they could play a major role in providing young people with a genuine chance of a career. To do that we need a scheme which is easy to understand and manage and which treats all participants as equal, no matter what their age or previous achievements

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


Every quarter, the Skills Funding Agency releases performance data on Adult Education. The information, known as an SFR (statistical First Release), whilst not definitive, provides a valuable insight into the health of the sector.

I was particularly interested to note that in the first 9 months of the Academic year 2012/2013, there were a total of just over 360,000 Apprenticeship starts. This suggests that for the full academic year, the total number of starts is unlikely to exceed 450,000 and if that proves to be the case, it will represent a fall of about 15% on the previous year and the first time that Apprenticeship starts have fallen since comparable records began 6 years ago. I suspect in fact, since Apprenticeship starts in the final quarter of the year are generally lower than in the first 3 quarters, that the final figures will show a fall nearer 20%

Not surprisingly, these new figures have resulted in a chorus of alarm bells ringing throughout the sector and all sorts of theories are being put forward to explain the sudden decline. Once again, the lack of effective careers advice about Apprenticeships is being raised as a key reason behind the fall but I don’t really buy that. Careers advice didn’t just plummet on 1 August 2012 – it is a perennial issue which we need to fix. So I think we have to look elsewhere

What Was Happening in 2011/12?

To fully understand the problem, I believe we need to look, not at the reasons behind the fall this year, but the reasons behind the huge increases in 2010/11 and 2011/12 when Apprenticeship starts nearly doubled compared with previous years.

As we now know, between 2012 and 2012, certain providers, acting it should be said totally legally, were signing up huge numbers of existing employees, assessing their existing skills, whisking them through Key Skills qualifications which did nothing to raise their English and Maths abilities and completing the programme of “training” in six months. Providers got their funding, employers got some free training and the government could make political hay with the massive increase in starts. The only people who missed out were the “Apprentices” who got a very dubious learning experience.

2012/13 was the year when the gravy train came to a halt as long overdue quality processes were introduced. A focus on the development of new skills for new employees, 12 month minimum timescales and most importantly the introduction of Functional Skills as a real opportunity to give learners the skills to apply their knowledge.

Putting all that together I am not surprised by the fall in starts, in fact I welcome it as evidence that we have moved into a different ballgame where quality rather than quantity is the byword. For far too long, we have been obsessed with “starts” as a measure of the success of the Apprenticeship programme. Instead we should be focusing on completion rates, drop-out rates and most importantly evidence of progression to higher courses and promotion within the workplace.

Of course, if the decline in starts continues into 2013/14, we should be seriously worried. But I am convinced that the current fall is a one-off brought about through the introduction of quality standards which I am sure we will all welcome.

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

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


A century ago, more than 1.5 m people in the UK were employed as Domestic Servants or were, to use the expression of the day “In Service”. It was an incredibly tough life for very low wages and unlike the Downton Abbey vision of maids combing their ladies’ hair all day, most servants led a grim and thankless life.

I was reminded of the old concept of “In Service” when I read last week that the UK economy is now 70% service-based. Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, we no longer make products in the UK, we simply provide a service for those products. So from call-centres to banks, from retail and hospitality to Care, we are all now “in service”. Of course, at the same time, we are all recipients of that service and our expectations of service levels we require are constantly rising. So whilst workers in the service industries may no longer work 12 hour days and live “Below The Stairs”, they are still expected to provide ever-increasing levels of care to their customers.

New Economy – New Skills

The move towards a service-based economy has a profound impact on the skill requirements of our workforce. Thirty years ago, school leavers with low academic qualifications, could still find jobs in shipbuilding, coal, steel or manufacturing. Conditions may have been awful and the work mind-numbingly boring, but they were often jobs for life and were the heart of many working-class communities. Now that those jobs have vanished forever, opportunities for low-skilled workers are almost non-existent and as I have argued many times before, unless we recognise that and address the issue, we are in real danger of creating a generation of young people who won’t just be unemployed – they will be unemployable.

That is why I always use the term “crisis” rather than the preferred government term “problem”, when referring to workforce skills. And in my opinion, it is not just about giving people the skills that will make them employable, it’s about giving them the confidence that will make them believe that they can move on from a low-paid service job and build a genuine career. Last week, I was talking about Functional Skills at an excellent Apprenticeships 4 England funding conference and I told delegates of a comment that had been made to me a few months ago, when an Apprenticeship provider told me that they only worked with hairdressers and that hairdressers did not require Functional maths and English skills to cut hair. Apart from finding the comment incredibly patronising, my response was that surely the purpose of the Apprenticeship wasn’t simply to assess someone’s ability to cut hair but to provide a young adult with the skills which would make them believe they could go on to become a salon manager or even open their own hairdressing salon one day.

Of course, Maths and English are not the only skill areas that we need to address. There are a whole range of “employability” skills where young adults need additional help and we desperately need more extensive careers advice. But at the end of the day, without the ability to communicate effectively and not just simply remember numerical facts, but understand their meaning and their use in different situations, then everything else becomes meaningless. Whilst young adults need no longer bow and scrape to Lord Grantham, they do need to be able to meet and exceed the expectations of their “service” customers. That is why I believe that successive governments have got it just about right in putting Functional Skills at the heart of both Apprenticeship and Traineeship programmes.

Funding is Critical

However, the programmes will only succeed with the right level of funding. The next government Spending Review is published at the end of June and I am fearful that Further Education and workplace funding will be cut again. Of course, there will always be spending limits and priorities, but the skills crisis in the UK is acute and needs to be addressed now, not as part of some long-term plan for the future. If the government wants the UK workforce to be trained to Level 2 in Functional Maths and English, then it has to provide funding at a level that will ensure that high quality providers will be able to deliver the qualifications.

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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