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Make ILAs universal and end funding lottery

Now that the new post-16 arrangements are bedding in, you would expect the focus of reform to move to the individual. This was the aspiration of the New Labour government in 1997 with its pledge to introduce Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs).

But these did not even merit a mention in the current manifesto. A Downing Street policy adviser has described them to me as "not sexy enough".

The policy wonks, however, should not get off too lightly. For a potentially radical departure from the status quo, ILAs have been articulated with a remarkable lack of vision. Prospective account-holders who visit the ILA website must first fill out an electronic form, only to receive a similar form by post a few days later. Opening an ILA takes, on average, four weeks compared with four minutes to apply for online credit cards.

Despite the Government's claim of achieving its manifesto commitment of a million accounts, the more detailed figures give a less optimistic picture. Those already bloated from a lifetime of learning - professionals - are four times more likely to have opened an account attracting a pound;150 tax-free hand-out than factory or shop workers.

Moreover, half a million accounts opened remain dormant, preventing the subsidy being distributed to others. It's a classic example of the middle classes working the system.

ILAs are an example of a visionary policy that was botched and poorly managed. They compete with a bewildering number of other financial incentives and schemes. There are 45 disparate initiatives to boost investment in skills. They include career development loans, small firms' training loans, income-contingent loans, educational maintenance allowances and the learning card - all adding up to the same thing. Learning accounts are only a tiny part of the pound;1.8 billion that individuals spend on courses annually.

Despite all these setbacks, ILAs still have major potential. They can be made more appealing. By building them around the principles of access, entitlemnts, rights and responsibilities, the new government has a fresh mandate to re-invigorate them. This chimes with a key demand set out in the last government's Green Paper on lifelong learning. This stated that funding post-compulsory learning should not mean paying for "bums on seats" in colleges by putting individuals and employers more fully in charge.

With the new Learning and Skills Council up and running in England, it is time for a serious debate about how best to allocate its pound;6 billion of public funding. Do we continue to channel 100 per cent support to the learner via institutions, or are these accounts a more radical way of securing greater participation in the learning market of 2001?

The answer is to make them universal. Start by giving them to every school-leaver, placing them at the heart of all future forms of post-16 financial support. Ministers should abolish all the other initiatives, leaving the ILA - and a new Learning and Skills Bank - to administer a comprehensive and more coherent system through which people and employers pay for skills.

Once in the hands of the individual, ILAs become a fairer and more transparent means by which the state, employers and individuals can better share the investment of lifelong learning. They enable a government committed to opportunity for all to end the funding lottery between full and part-time students, between those in academic education and those serving apprenticeships.

Investment in training by industry could also be boosted if universal ILAs were used as the vehicle for increasing contributions from employers. Compulsory contributions could be taken from those firms who poach skills from others or do not take the issue of training seriously. If the Government really made them universal, it wouldn't be long before the private banks were on board. How far is the new government prepared to go?

Tom Bewick is director of policy and communications at the National Training Organisations' National Council

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