Jobhunters must quit slow-spin cycle of study limits

Every paper I pick up at the moment is going on about the feel-good factor. Never mind the blip in inflation, house prices are on the move again. Before we know it, we will run the risk of catching dinner-party conversations which drift from the state of local schools to the attractions of moving somewhere else - somewhere more expensive.

Curiously, the feel-good factor has also reached the area of work with adult learners. The enthusiasm for learning cities is spreading as fast as a rather virulent rash - people ring up most days and ask what is involved. News from the local authorities is, surprisingly, the best it has been for years, with the decline in take-up in uncertificated provision halted, and in many places reversed - albeit modestly, and albeit only on the earliest returns.

The main reason for feeling better about things this week, though, stems from Eric Forth's Parliamentary answer on November 6 on the subject of the Job Seekers' Allowance, and the Government's intention to introduce pilot schemes to liberalise the rules affecting unemployed people who want to learn their way out of their lot in life.

Educational opportunities for unemployed people have been contested territory for a decade or more. Politicians of all parties have committed themselves this year to the principle of a learning society where people can learn throughout their lives, but the unwaged have always had difficulty in getting a fair share of the action. The basic problem has been that we pay students less than we pay the unemployed, so if unemployed people are allowed to study too much the floodgates will open - students of all sorts will be eligible to sign on. Since social security has been one of the boom industries in the British economy in the 1980s, officials came up with the 21-hour rule - not a rule, in fact, but a convention - which limited claimants to 21 hours' study and class-based activity, leaving them plenty of time to take out their bicycles and look for work, and, happily for the public purse excluding full-time students from claiming benefit.

Creative colleges up and down the country adapted course structures to fit these rules, and there has been a boom in Access and return-to-study courses. In many ways the 21-hour convention was a classic British fudge that worked for many - though not for everybody.

Local benefit offices had discretion in applying the "rule" to take account of local labour markets. In Lancashire, it was reported that only Skelmersdale office allowed people to study at all on the dole. In some places offices believed that evidence that you paid a hefty fee to join a course represented proof that you were not seriously seeking work, given the size of your investment.

The National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education came across a white- goods engineer in North Wales who was made redundant by a well-known washing machine manufacturer as markets declined. He embarked on a course to qualify himself for a change of career - a model of the adult learner in the new economy. Before he finished his studies there was a short-term upturn in the washing machine market. His Jobcentre required him to give up the course. A few weeks later, with the next sales dip, he was back on the dole, waiting for the next course to start. After three attempts to gain new qualifications, each thwarted by the offer of short-term jobs, his spirit began to weaken.

News that all this was to change with the introduction of a Job Seekers' Allowance gave cause for anxiety and optimism: anxiety that those who had benefited from the 21-hour rule would lose out, optimism that, in this area at least, new policy might be applied consistently. As the JSA passed on to the statute books, it became clear that wherever the rule had been interpreted to mean 21 hours of taught study, the new rules would mean less for learners, as the maximum taught hours was set at 16 hours.

The Government claimed its aim was neutral overall, yet in Liverpool, London and other metropolitan areas providers felt that swathes of provision were at risk. No amount of lobbying worked in securing changes on the face of the Bill, and the JSA was introduced last month.

This week's feel-good factor relates to the follow-up of a ministerial promise in Parliamentary debate, to consider piloting alternative arrangements. In selected Employment Service areas of Leeds and Liverpool, qualifying claimants with at least six months on JSA will, from next April, be allowed to look only for work compatible with their 16 hours of study, providing they are studying for a work-related qualification on a course lasting no longer than a year. In a parallel pilot scheme to be introduced in Walsall and Wolverhampton, Cardiff, Bridgend, and the Vale of Glamorgan, qualifying claimants will be able to study full-time and will be exempt from the normal obligation to seek work during their course.

This is news well worth a celebration, and in the pilot areas it represents a small but important step towards the creation of a learning society. Given the Government's enthusiasm for the rapid generalisation of pilots in other spheres, let's hope the models being piloted will be universally adopted in time for next September.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education

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