The Heat Is On: Britain May Be Poor in Skills, but It Does Not Lack the Funds to Tackle the Problem. It's about Time That Employers Realised There's Something in It for Them. Natalie Brierley Reports

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Upskilling is a matter of national security. "If we don't train the unemployed people, they have nothing to do and are more likely to fall into the hands of extremists," said the Muslim Council of Britain's Muhammad Bari about the communities he represents. The problem is especially bad in London, where, according to Bari, unemployment in Muslim Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities is two to three times higher than the national average. "If we are going to tackle the problem," he said, "we must look at deprived groups more seriously, and build partnerships with community and voluntary sectors."

The importance of partnerships has become a recurring theme of the series of regional round-table discussions on skills, organised by the New Statesman and Fellows' Associates. At the second event, in the north-west, Manchester City Football Club had shone as the guiding light in promoting a learning culture to deprived areas through partnerships. A few minutes into the third discussion, held in London, anyone would have thought the football industry was the only one to have got its act together on the skills agenda. "It's about making people realise that learning is sexy," said Susan O'Brien of the Football Foundation. To that end, the foundation supports projects such as those that use football players as mentors to help children excluded from school. The skills minister, Ivan Lewis, considers such schemes a real opportunity to replace intergenerational deprivation with intergenerational advance. If young people are turned on to education, that will stay with them for the rest of their lives and they, in turn, will pass on their positive experiences.

And yet, sexy as it is, football on its own cannot sort out London's problems. The issue of connectivity applies particularly to the capital, whose size makes it easy for small organisations to become isolated. Helen Casey from the National Research and Development Centre explained that although there are many young people looking for apprenticeships, they can't find them. "We need to be making those connections," she said.

Cyrus Todiwala, co-owner of Cafe Spice Namaste in London's East End, was championed as an example of someone who had seen the problem, understood the value of training and done something about it. Ruth Spellman from Investors in People explained how Todiwala had started the Asian and Oriental School of Catering and initiated language teaching for his staff, who spoke 25 languages between them. In so doing, he facilitated a business network within the Asian restaurant trade in the city. "We need to help people like him," said Spellman, "and shout about his success to show others what is possible."


But the TUC's Tom Wilson was despondent about the lack of employers in London who are willing to take on apprentices. "The chattering classes in Islington complain about not being able to get a plumber, but that's because no one is being trained to be a plumber," he said. A vast improvement in staying-on rates in schools could be one reason, as could a mismatch of supply and demand. As Lewis pointed out, "You can't deliver high-quality vocational training without employers and educationalists coming together." Most of the participants agreed with Wilson: the problem was a lack of employer demand.

It was widely acknowledged that trade unions are doing great things to bridge this gap through learning reps. But here, too, there are difficulties. People do not feel encouraged to become reps, because their normal workloads are not being adjusted to allow for the extra work involved.

Usdaw's solution is learning committees, offering reps not just support, but an organisational approach to learning that helps cement agreements with employers. The crucial point, made by Viv Bird from the National Literacy Trust, is that they start not by saying: "We want to upskill you," but by asking: "How can we get you involved in learning? …