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Advocates for learning

THE Scottish University for Industry might be a much smaller operation than its big English sister, but its chief executive officer, Frank Pignatelli, would be unlikely to relish swapping jobs with his opposite number, Dr Anne Wright.

His organisation has had a much smoother ride in getting Learndirect Scotland off the ground for its launch last Monday than UFI has had in launching Learndirect. That is in part due to a crucial difference between the two operations - Learndirect Scotland is not acting as a provider of learning opportunities. "We have taken a strong line to ensure we are very clearly seen as brokers and we will not contaminate the model by being drawn into course provision," Mr Pignatelli said.

The different tack reflects Scotland's small population and strong existing education service. Like Learndirect, the Scottish organisation will operate a website and telephone helpline that contains details of more than 40,000 "quality learning opportunities", from basic skills to masters degrees, as well as about 30 Learndirect-branded learning centres.

Mr Pignatelli said these and other centres, located in colleges, community centres, libraries and even pubs, must abide by a "pledge to learners" to ensure provision is of high quality.

Scottish UFI was set up last December and Mr Pignatelli only took up his position earlier this year. A director for nine years of Strathclyde's education department, which had 53,000 staff, he was lured back to Glasgow from his post as human resources director of Associated Newspapers.

As in England, there was suspicion from the FE sector about UFI, which Mr Pignatelli said he could understand, but he has worked closely with college principals to allay their fears about the initiative. Several colleges will feature in the Learndirect Scotland launch as exemplars of good practice.

According to Mr Pignatelli, UFI ha to be almost "subversive" to entice people in disenfranchised communities to use learning points in pubs - "it has to look like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, not Windows 98". Principals recognise that that way, colleges will gain more students.

An advertising campaign coincides with a launch expected next month (it was postponed due to the death of Donald Dewar). This is intended to get more Scots en-gaged with learning. If the advertisements convince them to call the Learndirect helpline, they will learn of the enticing carrot of a pound;150 individual learning account.

In a good example of joined-up thinking, as Mr Pignatelli puts it, Learndirect Scotland is also administering the accounts and they can only be used for courses from its database.

In a country where 98 per cent are employed in businesses with fewer than 50 people, and almost 94 per cent in those with 10 or fewer, Scotland's need for an organisation offering employees more flexible training and professional development is acute.

Mr Pignatelli added that Learndirect Scotland must ensure that provision meets varying local needs, underlining the need for good working relationships with local providers and focusing on learners. "We have to be advocates for learning and learners and we can't do that if we are devoting our energies to managing an infrastructure or network."

While warning that this was only the first stage and some glitches were inevitable, he said Learndirect Scotland would be better than the existing structures.

Whether enterprise and lifelong learning minister Henry McLeish's claim that the Scottish UFI is "the most exciting and radical learning development in post-war Scotland" is true remains to be seen, but it certainly appears to be starting from a position of strength.

Learndirect Scotland: www.learndirectscotland.com. Scottish UFI: www.scottishufi.co.uk

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