Roger Peace delivers 17,000 apprenticeships a year at learndirect. He talks to us about UK education...

The CEO of learndirect on up-skilling the UK

Roger Peace is the man at the helm of learndirect. The organisation was founded in 2000 as part of a New Labour concept called the University for Industry. The aim was to use new technology to deliver training and learning programmes to help build and enhance skills and employability prospects for people across the UK.

Upon its creation, the organisation decided to deliver training online.

learndirect now delivers more than 17,000 apprenticeships a year, and each day 20,000 people log on and learn through learndirect.

Peace joined learndirect as chief financial officer in 2005, and was then appointed CEO. Since taking the helm, Peace guided the transition of the organisation away from being operated through a charity at arm’s length from government, to coming under private ownership.

We caught up with Peace to find out what learndirect has in store, and why private ownership has given the company a newfound freedom.

Q. Where are the real skills shortages you’re seeing?

Well, functional English and maths to hold down a job. It’s not necessarily about having the ability to do complex algebra, but it’s the sort of English and maths you need functioning for your role. Functional ICT is also a key shortage.

The other areas are the sort of skills that employers look for - so how do you work in teams? How do you run a project? How do you deal with customers? It’s those sorts of practical issues we come across day-in-day-out in work, that aren’t necessarily taught in schools.

Q. Why are people being left by the wayside?

It’s hard to pin it down, but the facts are that there are five million people in the workforce today and there are lots of government reports out saying that people’s levels of English and maths and IT are not really good enough for the jobs that are available in the market.

We’ve trained three million people over the past decade, but schools are still putting out lots of people without those necessary levels of English and maths.

But learndirect’s role isn’t to be critical of schools. The government has raised the school leaving age to 17 and 18, which is a very positive move, but we as a nation are not addressing this.

Our role [at learndirect] is to offer a different service to these individuals to address what didn’t work from school. We’re not a college and we’re not a school. When people come to us they have a completely different experience.

Q. Has there been a sea-change in how apprenticeships have changed due to tuition fees increases?

Yeah, I feel there’s a lot of momentum going in that route. The government has been raising the profile and been amazingly pro-apprenticeships, so I must congratulate them for doing that. I think large employers have also recognised that too. And certainly individuals and young people have been making the decision, “Do I want to be leaving university with around £30,000 debt, or do I want a really vocational relevant useful qualification?”

I think what we’ve done disproportionately over the last decade is encouraged universities and felt that if you followed a vocational route it wasn’t equivalent.

But that message is now changing. We need to recognise the apprenticeship as a professional qualification as, for some people a better route than going to university.

At 18 you can avoid that debt, get good training, gain recognition and a career path.

Q. What are the other core challenges to raise apprenticeships to the same level?

It’s introducing them to all relevant jobs rather than just seeing them as being in craft-based industries. It’s getting employers to recognise that a bespoke apprenticeship framework can be developed for their particular job requirements. It’s also expanding the range of jobs and companies that could use an apprenticeship.

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Q. How is learndirect structured now?

Though we were running through a charity we needed more investment, and wanted to be prepared to operate more broadly than what our narrow relationship was with the government, and that couldn’t be realised through a charity. We did bring in private sector ownership so our principle shareholder is Lloyds Development Capital – the private equity arm of Lloyds.

Q. What was the effect of moving away from government?

It gave us an opportunity to go into contracts where there was a risk return. The charity wouldn’t take that sort of risk. So it immediately allowed us to expand beyond our narrow remit. That was the most significant change. So in areas like employability, where the government had introduced payment by results contracts, the charity wouldn’t have contemplated that risk. But since then we have been able to expand the areas in which we operate.

We have more of an operational relationship now rather than access to ministers, but in itself that’s fine. Because of our size, we are still able to contribute actively to the debate.

Q. What are the main challenges for learndirect over the coming years?

In the area of apprenticeships, it is the major focus of all government policies, so you hear that the coalition government is very much supporting this, Labour in their manifesto are very much supporting this, but one of the dangers is - and continues to be - that governments try to change the way the funding flows, try to change some of the requirements for an apprenticeship, and I think quite often it slows down the growth and there’s a bit too much tinkering with it.

Q. What are you most excited about for the future?

For me it is the increasing recognition that apprenticeships are seen as a valid alternative to university, and particularly to move apprenticeships up to graduate-level apprenticeships. So it’s expanding the range of apprenticeships as we go forward.

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