Go easy on the jobless

Allowing the unemployed to claim benefit while training is a sound idea, but there are drawbacks, writes Graham Fowler

There is a gap in this country between the prospects of those who shine at school and those who do less well. This affects life chances, job prospects and opportunities for further training. So proposals to provide options for those who are less skilled - particularly if claiming benefit - are welcome.

People from the poorest section of society are least likely to benefit from the financial, social and health rewards which generally follow from studying. The 2004 pre-Budget report, "Skills in the Global Economy", which formed the basis for the Leitch review, says that "nearly seven out of 10 economically inactive benefit claimants and half of the unemployed do not have qualifications equivalent to level 2 (GCSE), compared with the national average of just over three out of 10 adults".

It is vital, then, that attention and resources be devoted to the development of the skills of the unemployed and disabled. Clearly, the Government is the first port of call when it comes to funding the training needs of these groups.

The central development recognised in "Skills in the Global Economy", shortly to come into operation, is that the move from unemployment and welfare into employment is best seen as consisting of job-search and training. This means changing benefit rules - because at present it is impossible for anyone in receipt of benefit to undertake "guided learning"

for more than 16 hours a week.

The Government has recognised the validity of this argument - at least for those on long-term benefit. As the pre-Budget report says, "From April 2006, the Government will therefore pilot the approach of allowing benefit claimants currently on jobseeker's allowance along with those on income support and incapacity benefit, with the agreement of their personal adviser, to take up free, full-time training, where their personal adviser judges this the best way of helping them back into work. They will still receive the same level of benefit and an additional pound;10 weekly benefit to cover the extra costs of learning."

The recognition of the importance of training is excellent, the decision to allow benefits to continue is vital for some prospective trainees, and the increased access to information is helpful. This is an instance of government policy moving in the right direction.

Sadly, concerns remain about limitations in the proposals - and beyond just the fact that it is only a pilot at present. First, for the long-term unemployed who are the prospective trainees, options will be limited, with employability given a potentially unhelpful emphasis.

At the moment, few benefit claimants study for a level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualification, although those that do have a free choice of what they study. In contrast, future provision will "allow personal advisers to influence the type of training to ensure that it is focused upon improving employability".

This is more than a mechanism for deflecting personal whims. In line with centralised manpower planning, personal advisers are expected to exercise "tight control over training to ensure that it is focused on specific jobs - restricting full-time training to courses identified by employers as priorities".

Some might argue these are reasonable precautions, but to force trainees to take a course simply because local employers believe they will have vacancies is to risk the individual disasters that will follow from another negative educational experience. Given their prior experiences, these individuals may never recover.

Moreover, the emphasis on employability denies the influence that strong motivation can play in learning as well as current arguments for the transferability of life-wide learning from one area of experience to another.

A better alternative - particularly for these vulnerable students - would be to allow them access to a wide range of courses, with the aim of building on an initial successful experience. Later, courses may more realistically and reasonably have an intended vocational outcome.

The second concern is that the proposal for those on long-term benefits is deemed to have implications for other unemployed groups. Incongruously and surely unnecessarily, those who are unable to take a full-time course of study are to experience a tightening of benefit rules to ensure that job-seeking is the priority, and training is a minority - obviously part-time - interest.

The idea that long-term benefit claimants can move from welfare to work via training is welcome. There is strong evidence that this works. Yet it seems that this has been accepted grudgingly - either because that is the view of government or there is a belief that only this approach will be politically acceptable.

Graham Fowler is an FE researcher, writer and consultant

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