The National Skills Academy launches

A national skills academy for the active leisure sector, officially launched this month, is set to change the way employers and leisure professionals think about training, qualifications and career development. Jonathan Ives went to SkillsActive headquarters to ask Stephen Studd how it will work

Stephen Studd
Stephen Studd, SkillsActive chief executive

The view from the windows of the SkillsActive headquarters a few floors above New Oxford Street has changed over the past year or so. The demolition of an adjacent office block means that you now see out across St Giles, one of London’s most historic parishes. There are now few reminders of the area’s past as one of the capital’s most notorious slums, the ‘rookery’ that served as the inspiration for Gin Lane as a depiction of the blasted lives of the London poor in Georgian England. The Crossrail project, recently begun in earnest, will bring further changes, particularly for The Astoria, the famed music venue on Tottenham Court Road now just visible from the SkillsActive windows, which will shortly be demolished to create a new station.

Stephen Studd, chief executive of SkillsActive, the sector skills council for active leisure and learning, is surrounded by change but as a seasoned leisure practitioner it is an environment that he is well used to by now. We are here to discuss the National Skills Academy and Stephen knows as well as anyone that with change comes opportunity. SkillsActive anticipates that the new academy will revolutionise the way leisure professionals develop their skills and careers. Although not exclusive to active leisure and sport, the concept is, he believes, particularly well suited to the way this sector works.

“We have the opportunity with government to establish a national skills academy for the sector,” Stephen explained. “Over time any sector has the opportunity to put a proposal to government to match employer investment to set up a national skills academy. There are half a dozen at various stages of development and they are all different depending upon the various needs of their sectors.”

One such academy has been developed for the construction industry, using the London Olympics site as a focal point. This will in effect serve as a mobile academy, training people on the site and then moving on to new projects as they appear. Although leisure and construction are very different industry sectors there are some similarities between their approach to their national skills academies.

 “We didn’t think we particularly needed a bricks and mortar site,” Stephen said. “We’re setting up nine regional hubs – it’s an English development initially – and the idea is that the hubs will become a focus for employers. We want employers to link to the hub, use that hub to identify their training needs and then broker solutions for those needs. The hub will then approve with those employers a network of centres of excellence that will provide the training in the locality that the employers want.

“The regional hubs will be the physical context of the National Skills Academy. At the centre there is a virtual platform that will link those hubs and will increasingly become a resource base for the centre. It will carry careers advice and we’ll use the virtual platform to present the industry as a coherent career choice, which is one of the key problems that the industry has always faced.”

The academy concept is based upon the sector skills agreement between each sector skills council and central government. Each sector skills council analyses its own sector to assess the nature of employment, the employers, the occupations, the workforce to assess the likely skills issues. The outcome is a sector skills agreement that outlines how skills will be improved and training delivered.

“One of the key drivers is the skills issue: what are the key occupations that are going to make the difference for the industry if it is going to be successful? It’s pretty simple stuff in some respects but the obvious conclusion was, to use the Fitness Industry Association’s phrase, that we need more people, more active, more often. That will make a success of the industry: more people pursuing active and healthy lifestyles. There is a big opportunity for the industry to capitalise on government momentum on getting people more active and we also have 2012.”

The task for the active leisure sector – defined by SkillsActive as sport and recreation, health and fitness, outdoors, playwork and caravan industries – was to present itself in a coherent way, offering clear entry routes and clear routes of progression. The National Skills Academy has been developed to beserve this end based upon five key priorities: improve the quality and range of the services the industry offers; recognise diversity across the sector; recruit and retain staff; ensure that training matches the needs of employers; and make sure  funding matches these needs. Mr Studd is confident that the academy “hits all these buttons”.

The academy has its first three hubs under development, one at Crystal Palace in London, one based at Sheffield United and another at the Centre for Outdoor Management and Education in Penrith. The hub services have been subject to tender and are seen by SkillsActive as a brokerage service for skills independent of training delivery. It is not, Stephen emphasised, an opportunity for colleges to become a regional focus for the delivery of training for the active leisure sector.

“The hubs are getting an injection of capital and they’re getting an enhanced facility,” Stephen said. “What else they may be getting depends who it is. If you take Greenwich Leisure as an example [who manage the Crystal Palace facility], there is a difficulty in recruiting people in London. They see the academy as a way of tackling that issue. They have the opportunity to gain some capital investment but also the purchasing power of the hub. That’s where I think the training facility will come into the hub. Some of this training will be bespoke. We piloted the concept in South Wales and we have a small hub running there. It grew out of the fact that across South Wales employers were having to send their people to Swindon and Birmingham to go on courses. The purchasing power said ‘we want those courses in South Wales’.”

National Skills Academy hubs will be looking for a more responsive service from training providers, a demand that SkillsActive anticipates will drive the development of centres of excellence.

“Instead of a qualification that is full-time for three years, it will be broken up into pieces that you want and taken into the workplace,” Stephen explained. “In return for the providers being much more responsive to the way that individuals and employers want the programme developed, they will be the recognised centres of excellence. There’s a business opportunity for them and we’re looking at a partnership, a way of organising the industry so that it can have a proper partnership with training providers.”

While this picture might serve the needs of training providers and employers, individuals seeking to develop their own careers are likely to be the most important elements in the academy’s success. Does this serve the needs of the individual as well as the employer?

“The hubs will be looking particularly at the employers but the virtual platform will be a resource for individuals. We have something called the skills passport and the aim is that every person that is studying to enter the industry, whether they be on a young apprenticeship, an apprenticeship or a foundation degree, will get a passport. These passports are an online record of your achievements so you have a verified record of your CV but also that passport number will give you access to the academy. From there you can plot your own learning and career route. There will be over time a database of where you can find approved courses and the centres of excellence that have provided the opportunities. The aim is this ‘one stop shop’ for individuals and organisations. You can then see that the next obvious link is linking people looking for jobs with employers looking for skilled, trained people.”

The virtual platform that will drive the National Skills Academy resources and the passport system will be the academy’s biggest single investment but the technology is not being pioneered by SkillsActive alone. Developed by a commercial provider, the passport system is being used in the hospitality industry and offers the prospect of passports being transferable across employment sectors. Birmingham City Council are currently piloting the SkillsActive passport for their training records and things seem to be going according to plan. The Register of Exercise Professionals (REPS) had provided a good model on how membership of a passport scheme can deliver a real shift in thinking across an industry sector and as of April this year the passport serves as the REPS membership credentials.

Stephen concedes that there are some political challenges, including issues around the government’s target for ensuring people reach a particular level of qualification and how the regional hubs might interact with national employers, but he is confident that the national skills academy has generally been welcomed as a ‘good thing’ across the leisure sector and is set to move forward in a positive fashion.

“The aim of the academy is to be an umbrella under which all the professional organisations can benefit,” he said. “SportsCoach UK is a good example. As part of the new UK Coaching Framework there is a centre of excellence and they want a coaching support centre in each region. Those support centres will be centres of excellence with a specialism in coaching. These things are not competitive. It’s an opportunity for the industry to get together with one approach.”

When reminded that the sport and leisure sector has not always served as a beacon of co-operation and concerted action, Stephen smiled and narrowed his eyes just slightly.

“We’ll just have to plough on regardless.”


Full details of the national skills academy for sport and active learning can be found on the SkillsActive website at

The Leisure Review, May 2008



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