Alison Wilson and Gill Homan
The economic significance of the small business sector in generating income and sustaining employment has been recognised by successive UK governments since the 1960s. Concern over the volatility of the sector in terms of the number of failures and new businesses being established on a yearly basis, has resulted in a vast array of research into various aspects of small businesses. The Bolton Committee of Inquiry on Small Firms (Bolton 1971) was tasked with investigating, for the first time, every business aspect appertaining to the small firm both in the United Kingdom and abroad. One of the Bolton Committee’s conclusions, in 1971, was that in the United Kingdom ‘there was a generally low level of management in small firms’ and that training and “support services” could be improved to increase their chances of survival’ (Stanworth and Gray 1991:178). This was the first official recognition of the significance of the quality of management in the potential survival and growth of the small business.
However, it was not until the 1980s that management skills came to the forefront of government initiatives. This was in response to the Handy (1987) and Constable and McCormick (1987) reports, which documented the need for increased and more effective management education across all organisations. The establishment of the Management Charter Initiative (MCI) developed standards for different levels of management against which management NVQs were designed. NVQ certification is intended to improve the relevance of training and ensure that it is more closely related to skill needs. A competence-based approach with an emphasis on work-based development was thought to be more relevant to the small business sector needs.
However, in spite of successive government initiatives in the area of management development, and the plethora of courses and training programmes available to the small business sector, the lack of management skills is still being highlighted as one of the contributory factors in either failure to grow or in the cessation of small businesses (Labour Market Survey: see Engineering and Marine Training Authority 1998). Indeed, the White Paper Opportunity for All in a World of Change (DTI and DES 2001) identifies UK management as constraining private sector investment and business