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Doubt over learning accounts;FE Focus

Labour's adult education revolution could turn out to be a damp squib if tuition fee subsidies are not backed up by help for costs such as childcare, say colleges. Ian Nash reports.

GOVERNMENT plans to help adults invest more in their own education and training will fail if they are restricted to help with tuition fees, college leaders have warned.

They insist a fundamental weakness of the flagship Individual Learning Accounts initiative has been exposed by the Further Education Funding Council this week. The lack of help with costs such as childcare and stationery could scupper the scheme, they say.

In the run-up to the 1997 General Election, Labour hailed the learning accounts as a breakthrough that would encourage more personal investment in education and training.

For every pound;25 invested by an individual and matched by their employer, the Government pledged pound;100. The minimum total of pound;150 was seen as adequate to pay for a range of programmes from basic computing to secretarial skills courses.

But problems soon emerged such as how the unemployed would be catered for and how colleges would fit into the equation. The FEFC was asked to devise a series of pilots, costing pound;2 million and aimed at 1,500 full-time (equivalent to 10,000 part-time) students.

But little guidance was given on how these should be administered, who should be the target group, how they would fit in with the wider plans for employers and what role the colleges might play in the longer term.

The only rules were that the FE pilot projects should allow people "reasonable choice" in how they spent their money and that the spending should be restricted to tuition fees.

This week, the FEFC exhorts colleges to use accounts to build on current work such as efforts to widen participation, improve workplace learning, and support schemes sponsored by employers.

But, while the FEFC stresses that learning accounts should be only be used to pay course fees, it urges colleges to find other ways to meet costs such as childcare, transport and stationery.

David Melville, chief executive of the council, told colleges they should concentrate on individuals in small to medium enterprises and on excluded groups such as ethnic minorities rather than the lowest-paid, who are already entitled to remission of fees.

He also urged colleges to work in partnership with other training providers, employers and community groups.

John Brennan, director of development for the Association of Colleges, said this was a clear recognition that learning accounts could not in the longer-term be restricted to the payment of course fees.

College leaders and the association view the initiative with at best "cautious optimism". But without considerably wider financial support for account holders there was little prospect of success, he said.

"Helena Kennedy, in her report on widening participation, recognised that fees were not usually the biggest barrier to learning. There are bigger social, financial and organisational aspects of life to deal with. The most powerful way ILAs can assist is with costs other than tuition fees."

He further warned that: "We expect to see a very thorough evaluation before any conclusions are drawn about wider approaches."

Mr Brennan welcomed the emphasis on partnership, without which there would be no incentive for colleges to get involved. "If we spend money stimulating the interest of individuals to learn, only to find they go somewhere else for training it could prove very costly.

"Partnerships of providers and interest groups could provide the mechanisms we need to ensure that college costs are met."

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