Why we need more learning

Skills and training must not be forgotten amid the cuts, says Julie Wilkes, boss of Skills - Third Sector

Julie Wilkes
Julie Wilkes

Julie Wilkes has the unenviable task of trying to persuade voluntary organisations to invest in skills and training. Training budgets are most commonly the first casualties of economic downturns, so Wilkes, chief executive of Skills - Third Sector, has a difficult job persuading people to protect them. "We know it's absolutely horrendous for a lot of organisations right now," she says.

Nevertheless, Skills - Third Sector, which the Labour government set up to address skills gaps in voluntary organisations, is pressing ahead with plans to develop the not-for-profit workforce. It has devised a national skills strategy and has created an apprenticeship framework to help charities benefit from the coalition government's drive towards more vocational learning.

These are ambitious activities for a relatively low-profile and lightly funded organisation. Sheffield-based Skills - Third Sector was awarded £2.5m from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Office for Civil Society when it was established as a sector skills council in 2008. Funding is due to expire in March this year. The organisation went on to become a charity in 2009.

It plans to take on a more active role by stepping into the void created by the demise of the quango Capacitybuilders at the end of the month. The infrastructure body's remit includes skills. For instance, it funded consortia of prominent charities and umbrella bodies to provide eight 'work streams' in areas such as performance management, leadership and governance, and marketing and communications. The consortia, which received £16.8m from 2008 to 2011, were expected to cascade learning across the sector.

Skills networks

The model is not dissimilar to the one Skills - Third Sector is now establishing. It has created four 'skills networks', covering volunteer management, governance and leadership, skills for business, and measuring effectiveness and impact.

Prominent charities and umbrella groups will work in consortia in each network. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Volunteering England, the Association of Volunteer Managers, New Philanthropy Capital, Navca and Sheffield Hallam University are among those involved.

But there is one glaring difference from Capacitybuilders - funding. Skills - Third Sector doesn't have anything except the £2.5m it received to get started.

Wilkes wants a mixture of government and voluntary sector support, but she says the sector must invest, whether or not Whitehall is willing. "Unfortunately, it has been lulled into thinking the government will step in and pay for its learning needs," she says.

The legacy of a decade-long investment in infrastructure needs preserving, she argues: "There are a lot of resources out there. We have 'done' development; we know what the sector needs. Now let's put resources into delivery."

She cites Improving Support, the website set up by Capacitybuilders, as a knowledge portal for the sector and an example of continuity. Skills-related resources on the site will be transferred to the new skills networks so they won't have a standing start.

Sector division

Wilkes says past dependence on state funding created another problem. "It divided the sector," she says. "People were working against each other for funds. Now we need new forms of collaboration and in-kind contributions."

Her other priority is apprenticeships, of which she says there are only 6,500 in the entire voluntary sector. By contrast, she says, most major organisations in the public and private sectors have their own apprenticeship schemes.

Skills - Third Sector, in partnership with voluntary organisations, is creating apprenticeships in fundraising, managing volunteers and campaigning. A fourth kind is expected to follow.

The apprenticeships are linked to national occupational standards and, Wilkes says, they could encourage young people and service users to work for charities. "They are real jobs with real qualifications," she adds.

The government has pledged to create a record number of apprenticeships, and Wilkes hopes this will result in investment that could lever training funds into charities.

Increasing the number of university students was Labour's priority. Wilkes says the move away from this to apprenticeships is "brilliant news" for the third sector. "Whatever you think of the Labour approach, it had the unfortunate consequence of throwing a lot of people on the scrapheap if they did not reach university, because that was set up as the standard," she says. "That should not have happened. Apprenticeships provide a real opportunity for people who don't learn academically."

Funding is, however, never far from the conversation. Skills - Third Sector still doesn't know for certain whether it will be funded beyond this month.

"We have been assured of the likelihood of ongoing support by civil servants, but have not yet received any confirmation," says Wilkes. A lot, it would seem, depends on it.


2009: Chief executive, Skills - Third Sector

2007: Chief executive, Wakefield Council for Voluntary Service

2003: Coordinator of strategic performance, Barnardo's

2001: Chief inspector of social work education, General Social Care Council

1989: Education adviser, Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work

1979: Qualified as social worker and employed by Camden Council

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