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What happens when you privatise vocational education and training

January 15th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Interesting paragraph in the Marchmont Observatory Web Flash:

The new Pearson boss, John Fallon, just last week took a £120 million hit, as he announced plans to close its UK adult-education arm — less than three years after buying the core business, Melorio, for £99 million.

Now I didn’t even realise that Pearson was a big UK vocational training provider. Neither were they, it seems, until 2010 when they bought Meloria which according to the Financial Times provided “training courses for the IT, construction and healthcare industries, areas which Pearson believes will be in demand in its key target markets such as the Middle East, Brazil, India and China.” The company was renamed Pearson in Practice.

At the time Meloria, according to company documents, had 49 training centres in the UK training 150000 people a year. In 2009-10 on revenue of £58.4 million they made an operating profit of £13.6 million.

But it was nothing to do with the so called key target markets that led to Pearson pulling out. The Evening Standard newspaper quotes Dame Marjorie Scardino, predecessor of present Pearson boss John Fallon,  of warning last year that adult training was suffering, after trading took a turn for the worse when the Government changed the way apprenticeships were funded.

The Evening Standard goes on to say: “Pearson is now working with the Government-backed Skills Funding Agency and further education colleges to transfer students to other training providers “with a minimum of disruption”. Last year, Pearson in Practice helped to “deliver” 170,000 apprenticeships in the UK and overseas.”

So what can we make of all this? Apprenticeship training in the UK was largely privatiscd with Pearson prepared to pay a big premium for what it saw as easy profits based on government funding. And when that funding didn’t raise the same profits that they had dreamed of they just pulled out. No wonder there have been so many complaints at the quality of apprenticeship training in the UK.

If the UK properly funded vocational education and training providers in the public sector these messes would never happen. And if apprenticeship is to become a proper route for skills and competence, then private companies like Pearson cannot be trusted to provide it.

2 Responses to “What happens when you privatise vocational education and training”

  1. Frustrated Assessor... says:

    Anyone, private or public, who thinks providing apprenticeship training is “easy profits” is in cloud cuckoo land. It’s poorly funded, over complicated, and for the past six years has been in the process of shortening the timescale allowed simultaneously with increasing the content that has to be taught in that timescale.

    In the time I’ve been teaching them (for a private provider albeit a tiddler compared to Pearson) the Level 2 apprenticeship we mostly deal with have gone from 2 years to 14 months while acquiring a mandatory ERR element (11 units) and an ICT Key Skill (and that despite the fact it’s an ICT apprenticeship to start with. In additional it’s become measurably harder. Standards which were Level 2 suddenly started appearing in level 1 units about 2 years ago and the exams (some now on version 7 because of continual tinkering and error corrections) have also grown in length and difficulty, some of the practical ones now having a recommended 6 hours time allowance (not a typo) where once they were 2 hours.

    If any commercial client agreed a contract then suddenly decided to up the workload by 20%, chop 80% off the timescale and expect to keep the price the same, they’d be laughed out of town!

    And has it improved the quality? Arguable, because with the same funding allocations and same recommended guided contact hours assigned to more work, what’s far more than likely to happen is that everything gets ‘covered’ – a word I loathe in teaching – but in far sketchier detail than before).

    The government’s money is simply not where its mouth is – Literacy is supposedly a priority but it’s a plain fact that the Communications qualification they made mandatory is the lowest funded of ANY qualifications in the apprenticeship framework…

    They talk about quality – doing more with less is not the route to quality. The route to cost saving, yes absolutely! And no one would argue that the Government needs all the cost savings it can get these days – but making cuts and brazenly trying to pass them off as quality improvements isn’t really playing the game.

    As a business, our lot generally seem resigned to the truth that there is in fact no way to make a profit from apprenticeships. It’s cashflow and turnover but that’s all.

    But what’s the alternative? Colleges as the obvious centrally funded option tend to do it very badly -the flexibility an employer wants does not sit well with the college model of bums on seats and everyone following a timetable. When we ask employers why they chose this route the flexibility of it vs a central course was one of the main reasons.

  2. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi frustrated assessor. You are raising a lot of important questions here. One is the model of education and training and the relationship between training providers and employers. A second is the issue of quality and how that is measured and also the nature and role of assessment. Perhaps most critical is the funding mechanism.

    It seems the funding is being used as a tool to inker with or change the nature of training. This is not a good way to do it. I have just spent 2 days talking to various managers from different organisations responsible for apprenticeship training in the construction industry in Germany. And whilst they all had various concerns – foremost of which is the difficulty in attracting apprentices – the funding seems to be working well – based on a training levy on companies. this levy funds the industry training centres and companies themselves receive a rebate for providing apprenticeship places. Training in the dual system involves an apprenticeship contract with a company and then block time spent in a vocational college and in the training centres. The training centres provide project based learning and is designed to ensure that all apprentices receive sufficient breadth of training, regardless of the specialities of the enterprises where they are employed.

    I nkow such systems are not easily appreciated culturally from one country to another but am convinced that as a model it offers a stable basis for developing quality education and training.

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