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Muted debut for business learning accounts

Ministers have finally announced details of the new business learning accounts intended to stimulate training in smaller companies - but immediately appeared to play down their significance.

There was no press release heralding the announcement and the Scottish Executive is placing heavy restrictions on the scheme.

The initiative, recommended in the lifelong learning report from MSPs in the last Scottish Parliament, will be piloted in four projects involving 300 small businesses over the next two years.

Two of the pilots will focus on occupational sectors, which will involve manufacturing businesses, in the Lanarkshire Enterprise area, and tourism, within Fife Enterprise's bailiwick. The other pilots will be geographically based covering a number of businesses, in the Ross and Cromarty Enterprise area and around the Clyde extending to Glasgow, Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire.

Lewis Macdonald, Deputy Lifelong Learning Minister, said: "We will use pilot schemes to support small businesses to engage in more training through effective information, advice and guidance."

While Mr Macdonald said the results of these schemes will help decide future policy, the Executive has made it clear there are "no commitments at this stage to undertake a national roll-out". The number of accounts involved "will require careful management of expectations".

There is believed to be some internal scepticism in the enterprise community about whether sufficient funds will be made available to support the initiative. The funding per pilot will be capped at maximum levels of between pound;3,500 and pound;7,500, depending on the number of employers involved. They will be expected to share half of the training costs.

Businesses to be targeted will be carefully chosen: they will require to have fewer than 50 employees and undertake no current training. The accounts can only be used to support business growth and not to offset employers' contributions to the costs of other training programmes such as Skillseekers and modern apprenticeships. The cash will not be tied to employees' acquisition of qualifications.

Businesses will need to appoint a "training champion" to take responsibility for a training plan.

There has been some criticism of the regulations surrounding the business learning accounts, but ministers are proceeding cautiously because of the debacle over individual learning accounts (ILAs), which collapsed amid police investigations into fraudulent claims.

An ILA mark two is on the drawing board.

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