Ready to go: the National Skills Academy

As the National Skills Academy prepares for its official launch, Jonathan Ives speaks to Florence Orban about how the academy will work and the impact it will have on the sport and active leisure sector.

Florence Orban
Florence Orban, chief exec of the NSA

The National Skills Academy actually began its work on 1 October but it will wait until mid-November for its official launch. This quiet commencement of the academy’s operational phase is the culmination of a great deal of work on the part of SkillsActive and their many partners  across the sport and active leisure sector. Judging from other industry sectors, getting a national skills academy off the ground is no small achievement and, as SkillsActive group chief executive Stephen Studd explained to TLR in our May edition, the National Skills Academy will revolutionise the way the leisure sector develops skills and careers. In addition to serving the development needs of individuals working in the sector, the academy will also act as a hub for employers looking to identify training needs and find solutions via a network of training providers. This, as Mr Studd made clear, could have a profound impact on professional development across leisure.

Florence Orban, now in post as NSA interim chief executive, is confident that the academy will meet these expectations. Having been in adult education for eight years, she joined SkillsActive as head of business development in June 2005 before taking on the role of project director for the development of the National Skills Academy. For the past two years the academy has been her full-time concern and, with the launch date finally arrived, our first question is, of course: how is it going to work?

“If you want to work in this sector, or if you are working in this sector, you will have one place that you can go to get all the information on the skills you need, the courses, the qualifications that are valued by employers,” she said. “I think that on one hand it’s about having a ‘one-stop shop’ and on the other it is knowing that this is all designed and driven by employers around vocational skills. Three years from now I would want anyone who works in the sector or who wants to work in sport, fitness and leisure to say, ‘I’ll look at the academy website.’”

The plan is for the website to serve as the first port of call, enabling enquirers to find the initial information and advice they might need for any of the many specialist areas of the leisure sector. This will enable the academy to have a relatively small number of staff while still handling thousands of enquiries. Although the vast majority of these enquiries will be coming from people working – or looking to work – in the sector, the National Skills Academy is clear that it will also be serving the needs of employers.

“If you’re an employer it’s exactly the same,” Orban said. “You would come to the academy because we’re going to help you with your training plan, help you to understand how you’re going to meet that training plan and we’re going to help you with your training budget. The big question for a lot of employers will be how to choose a training provider. It could be the college next door, word-of-mouth or whatever but there’s a lot of information that is more confusing than helpful. By going to the academy you know that you are dealing only with quality providers. We will hide a lot of the wiring so that as an employer we can say to you, ‘You want to train more of your managers? These are some programmes that are partly funded and these are the providers.’ If you’re looking at technical certificates or customer service, it will be exactly the same.”

Orban is keen that employers begin to see the academy as a primary source of assistance, particularly in the area of apprenticeships, which she feels are still misunderstood. The academy will also be able to offer help with providing basic skills in areas, such as literacy, maths and customer service, that have become a concern for many employers. By working in concert with employers, the academy anticipates being able to offer significant savings on essential training costs.

In outlining this approach, Orban agreed that initially the academy will be focused on engaging employers but emphasised that development of the academy services will swift.

“In the short term we are probably more geared to work with employers,” she said. “However, our website will be available for everybody and through our networks we would want to touch as many people as possible. Marketing will come in as well but we would want employers to tell their employees about the NSA and we would want governing bodies of sport to tell their volunteers. So it’s a case of targeting both employers and employees but certainly in the next three months the focus is on employers.”

In the notoriously factionalised world of sport and leisure, Orban is pleased to be able to report a positive response to the development of the academy among the sector’s many organisations and bodies. She attributes this to a general acceptance of the need for a one-stop shop for skill development across the sector and an understanding that the academy will be enabling, rather than preventing, other organisations’ work. She offered the academy’s finances as supporting evidence.

“From the employers’ point of view, the response has been fantastic. We have raised £6 million of investment in a sector that has no Microsoft or Rolls Royce. It has very tight margins with a lot of public sector and voluntary organisations. However, employers are leading on this, as have done for two years, and   they are putting the money in. They want a much more efficient system so that they save money in the end.”

As a veteran of more battles among sport and leisure organisations than it cares to remember, The Leisure Review felt obliged to raise a questioning eyebrow at the thought of a sudden outbreak of cross-sectoral harmony but Orban was adamant. Had it been a hard argument to win?

“In some ways yes because there is always scepticism: ‘Is this another government initiative; will it really help me?’ What we do is set about overcoming that. Hundreds of employers have met with us every month or every other month for eighteen months now, in some cases two years. They have already put their time and their expertise into this and they want to put their money into it. I think we are on the right track but you do have to convince people that you bring added value. If you don’t do that there’s no point. We have to bring added value very quickly because our funding is decreasing and we will not receive funding after three years.”

The operational launch in October and the official launch in November are obvious milestones in the creation of the National Skills Academy for the sport and active leisure sector. So too will be the announcement of the first tranche of training providers, which is scheduled in advance of the official launch. Three regions will be operational this year – London, Yorkshire and the North West – and three more will be rolled out in successive years; the South East, East and South West will be next. Attention will then be turned to ensuring that all the specialist areas within the academy’s remit – including playwork and caravans – are being served. There are targets as well as milestones: 15,000 learners in the first year through the academy and  85,000 by year five; 200 employers to be signed up in year one; target figures for training providers are less of a concern because they have already been achieved for year one.

In three years time SkillsActive is hoping that the National Skills Academy will be the first port of call for the sector’s professional development needs. After much hard work, everything is in place and the clock will start next month.


Find SkillsActive online at

The interview with Stephen Studd featured in the May 2008 issue of The Leisure Review.


The Leisure Review, October 2008



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“In the short term we are probably more geared to work with employers... Our website will be available for everybody and through our networks we would want to touch as many people as possible.”

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