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The Learning and Skills Council: an interview with Richard Marsh


Interview by: Debbie Hepton

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Richard MarshRichard Marsh is Employer Responsiveness Director at the Learning & Skills Council.

Richard works in the ‘Skills’ directorate at the LSC, a department dedicated to improving the Further Education system for employers.

He is responsible for the implementation of the Training Quality Standard and is involved in the delivery of other employer relevant quality assurance programmes, such as the Framework for Excellence, Employers Guide to Training Providers as well as the quality element of the new National Apprenticeship Service.

He has previously been quality and training manager for the Volkswagen group, Vodafone UK and within the travel sector.

DH: You are the head of employer responsiveness at the Learning and Skills Council. Can you give us an insight into the council and your day-to-day role?

Richard Marsh:

I spend my time working with employer representative bodies such as Sector Skills Councils and National Skills Academies to better understand what employers want from further education. I then use this information to influence the Learning and Skills Council as well as wider government plans to ensure the needs of employers are being met. One of the main things I am really focused on is taking the insight I have to help direct policy for the Training Quality Standard.

DH: Interestingly, the LSC is advised by the National Learner Panel, which acts as the “voice of the learner.” What can you tell us about this?

Richard Marsh:

The Learning and Skills Council has many advisors which include its Sector Skills Councils, and the National Learner Panel. Our job is to make sure we are acting upon the wishes of the government in a way that meets the needs of all users, learners and employers.

DH: According to your annual report, the last few years have been a period of “restless, relentless and extraordinary change across the Further Education system.” Can you talk us through some of these changes?

Richard Marsh:

The LSC was designed to coordinate and improve all post-school education not delivered by Universities. It has done a great deal to structure, organize and improve things but this has often meant delivering radical changes in response to ever increasing aspirations for the FE sector. For example, the Leitch report of 2006 set new goals for us all that have necessitated new funding methods and policies and even fundamental changes to the LSC itself.

We have all made some real progress in improving the skills and qualifications of learners and in providing employers with the skilled employees they need to compete. Between 1997 and 2005, this government has increased investment in further education by 48 per cent in real terms. We are working with more employers to develop the skills of their workforce with services such as the National Skills Academy network, Train to Gain, the National Employer Service and the soon to be launched National Apprenticeship Service.

"We need to work even more closely with employers to help them meet the skills shortages that exist in key sectors of our economy such as; finance, construction, science, engineering, and IT."

The Learning and Skills Council’s investment in skills overall means that 74 per cent of adults in the workforce are now qualified to at least level 2 and 1.34 million adults have improved their skills since the end of 2002. Also, the proportion of employers reporting skills gaps amongst their existing workforce has fallen: only 15 per cent of establishments feel they employ staff who are not fully proficient – down from 22 per cent in 2003 (NESS 2007)

DH: Generally speaking, do you think UK employers are doing enough to tackle skills shortages?

Richard Marsh:

I think employers are doing what they can at the moment but there is more that could be done.

We need to work even more closely with employers to help them meet the skills shortages that exist in key sectors of our economy such as; finance, construction, science, engineering, and IT. A really successful employer driven project which was initiated with targeted government support is the National Skills Academy Network – this is an innovative approach to give industries the specialist skills they need. There are currently 16 national skills academies in sectors as diverse as nuclear, retail, sport and active leisure and manufacturing.  The progress that the network has already made shows how much employers have already done to improve skills and highlights their potential for an even bigger role in the future.  The Government has committed to growing the National Skills Academy Network in 2009 with an ultimate aim of creating a skills academy in every major sector of the economy.

DH: The LSC’s demand-led funding approach puts "power and choice into the hands of learners and employers." What do you mean by this?

Richard Marsh:

Quite simply, rather than the Learning and Skills Council or another government body deciding where and what people must learn we will allow employers and learners to choose.

There has been a fundamental shift in learning which puts employers in the driving seat and enables them to develop and design training that best suits their needs.  Learners also have much more choice in how they learn.

DH: How is the current bleak economic outlook impacting on the employment market in the UK? What are the implications for training in particular?

Richard Marsh:

The effects on employment are now being realized and the implication for training is related. We have seen more caution amongst employers already, they want to keep training but must make sure every penny counts – this is where schemes like the Training Quality Standard (which identifies exemplary training providers) can help.

DH: Can you tell us about your local “skills brokers?” What are their roles in building relationships with employers?

Richard Marsh:

Train to Gain skills brokers are impartial experts which visit businesses and assess their individual training needs. They work with employers, identifying skills gaps and then providing a recommendation on the training employees should embark on and what funding there is to help cover its cost. Training is available at a range of levels – from basic skills through to Leadership and Management training. Skills brokers also find training providers which can meet businesses individual requirements – this may mean training is completed on-site.

DH: What is the Training Quality Standard (TQS)?

Richard Marsh:

The Training Quality Standard is an assessment framework designed to recognize and celebrate the best organizations delivering training and development solutions to employers. It helps employers find the best providers and helps providers understand and meet employers' needs.

DH: The LSC discusses increased investment by employers in skills to build the country’s economic competitiveness. However, in times of trouble training is often one of the first budgets to be cut. What would you say to employers in this tricky position?

Richard Marsh:

When times are tough it is understandable that businesses will consider cutting training budgets, but if you can keep training you should. It really is a false economy to stop investing in training. Training is the key to ensuring that people have the right skills to support you through these difficult times – you just need to make sure that every penny counts by choosing a training provider that will deliver excellent training that is flexible and tailored to your needs.  For an easy way to identify the best training provision, look for a provider that has the Training Quality Standard certification.

"Return on investment in training can be hard to gauge, however with some forward planning it can be done quite simply."

DH: The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has put forward proposals to allow TQS certificated providers to become “Train to Gain” brokers. Can you tell us about these brokers?

Richard Marsh:

To achieve the Training Quality Standard you must demonstrate (to the satisfaction of independent assessors) that you can impartially advise employers about the best place to get the training they need. UKCES recognize the high quality exhibited by Training Quality Standard providers and want to reward this, but these plans are only in the early stages of development.

DH: Clear benefits from training can sometimes be difficult to measure. What can employers do to better judge the effectiveness of their training programmes?

Richard Marsh:

Return on investment in training can be hard to gauge, however with some forward planning it can be done quite simply. The key is to always agree objectives before training starts by first assessing the skills needs of the company and their staff. From there companies should decide what business objectives they would like their training to deliver against and define how they will measure that impact.

Employers often fall down at the evaluation stage which is crucial for understanding if training has made an improvement to the business.

DH: According to the LSC website, the Council’s vision is that by 2010 young people and adults in England will have knowledge and skills matching the best in the world and be part of a truly competitive workforce. Are you on target to meet this vision?

Richard Marsh:

The LSC has overseen a huge improvement in the skills and knowledge of young people and of the workforce. Collectively, the LSC and the post-16 system must continue to deliver what learners and employers need and much more; not only so we are equipped to meet today’s challenges, but also so we are flexible enough to respond to the technological, demographic and global challenges facing us. We can expect transformation to be our normal state for many years to come.

While we know that our skill levels have improved over the past 10 years, other countries have improved faster. Among OECD nations we now rank 20th for post-16 participation in education and 18th for Level 2 qualifications in the workforce. Our OECD ranking points to a simple fact: we have much more to do.

DH: Are there any closing comments you wish to make?

Richard Marsh:

One thing that we do know is that regardless of changes in the government or the economy by raising the quality and effectiveness of training we are giving ourselves the best possible chance of meeting our aspirations. 

February 2009.

The Learning and Skills Council: an interview with Richard Marsh