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Summary

GHK Consulting was commissioned by HEFCE to undertake an initial evaluation of the three Higher Level Skills Pathfinders. The pathfinders were established in 2006 - in the North East, North West and South West regions - to support higher education (HE) in meeting regional skills needs through new types of employer demand-led training provision and improving access to these through services for employers such as Train to Gain and Business Links.

In this first evaluation we were looking for the lessons learned from the processes involved in setting-up the pathfinders and their early months of operation. We shall conduct a second evaluation to assess their overall performance and impact. The formative evaluation drew upon interviews with HE Regional Associations, which are leading the projects, together with their strategic and operational partners - which include the Regional Development Agencies, Learning and Skills Council, Sector Skills Councils, HE institutions and employers.

GHK found that, although it was too early to be conclusive, the pathfinders were demonstrating a degree of Strategic Added Value in term of leadership, influence and co-ordination. The pathfinders have fitted into a complex landscape and are firmly linked to regional priorities. The report highlights the challenges experienced by the pathfinders in establishing effective collaborative partnerships, but provides some early indications that the time spent on this may yield benefits in the later stages. It also draws out the similarities and differences in the approaches taken by the pathfinders. The report's authors see as key strengths the wide range of institutions involved in the projects and the high levels of regional ownership which have resulted in joined-up funding solutions between HEFCE, RDAs and the LSC.

The report makes a series of recommendations for HEFCE including a need to identify and disseminate lessons learned from the pathfinders more broadly within the HE sector, and to give a clearer steer about expectations on linkages to the Train to Gain Service.