The UK government’s policy is to put industrial skills and training at the top of the education agendy alongside schools and universities. A central feature is that education provision should become increasingly demand-led, ie. a constructive dialogue should be encouraged between educators and industries that need a ready supply of suitably qualified workers.

In December 2001, a handful of ‘trailblazing’ Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) were created to lead the way for the creation of an SSC for each significant economic sector with the aim of creating a network of independent UK-wide councils acting under the umbrella of the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA). One of these was Cogent, the SSC for oil and gas extraction, chemicals manufacturing and the petroleum industries.

By 2003, contingents from the polymer industry had expressed their interest in adding their voices to Cogent. At around the same time, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) also approached Cogent and the two additional industries were taken on board.

Ivan Lewis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Vocational Skills, Lewis Macdonald, Deputy Minister for Enerprise and Lifelong Learning in the Scottish Parliament and John Mumford, chairman of Cogent, signed the five-year licence on 2 March. The accompanying ceremony, held at the Institute of Civil Engineers’ building in London’s Westminster, marked Cogent’s transition to a fully fledged SSC, one of 11 in the network. By June, there should be 20.

Its role is to take forward the views of its members – companies involved in it sectors – and helping them to influence the priorities of governmental and academia. Government funding to the tune of £3 million is available to the body over the next three years. After that, Cogent is expected to be funded by the industries it represents.

Keynote speaker Ivan Lewis MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Vocational Skills, emphasised the importance of the new SSC, explaining his view, shared by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, that workplace skills are every bit as important as schools and the rest of the education system.

Macdonald added that Cogent should also act to dispel the myths and misapprehensions about its industries by reaching out to schools and allowing young people a realistic view of such work, and hopefully influencing their career choices.

As well as being economically and strategically important to the UK, Cogent’s industries have a lot in common:

  • Reliance on day-to-day innovation.
  • International competition.
  • Environmental impact.
  • Strict regulation.
  • A common skills pool of engineering, science and technology.

These commonalities are expected to provide Cogent with a strong base from which to reach the myriad firms that support the big names most people imagine dominate its industries. Cogent also aims to reach out to other SSCs which rely on science and technology graduates across the network.

John Ramsay, who became chief executive of Cogent once the licence was signed, told delegates that Cogent’s initial workload comprises four main tasks:

  • Establishing current and future skills requirements.
  • Engaging a wide range of parties on the supply side of education.
  • Evaluate yardsticks for success after agreement with employers.
  • Enrol as many industry firms as possible – to actually form the council.

Stating Cogent’s aims, Mumford said that employers will benefit from its work to improve the quality of, and access to, existing training through the use of better information, testing and accreditation. Cogent also want to introduce new tools, such as their Evolvonline system, which they claim is the world’s largest online library, and develop parallel standards such as a comon skills language alongside ‘passport schemes’ like the one already in operation among North Sea oil and gas workers. Employees, too will feel benefit from Cogent as their vital workplace learning is officially recognised.

If Cogent seems to have a confusingly large set of priorities when combined with its UK-wide scope, the fact was not lost on Jim Lewis, of the Regional Development Agency (RDA) for the North East of England, who hoped that the nationwide dimension of Cogent’s work would not dilute regional RDAs ability to handle their own issues.

The answer from Ivan Lewis was that the potential for problems was indeed a challenge, but that all participants in the SSC have a responsibility to ‘join up’ their activities and work together to create the dream of demand-led education provision. He frankly stated that they were “Nowhere near that yet, nowhere near,” but reaffirmed that the policy path is in place for just that revolution.