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New learning era dawns

INDIVIDUAL learning accounts, heralded as "the beginning of a new era" in lifelong learning, officially become available from today, after a flurry of activity earlier in the week.

Henry McLeish, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, unveiled the initiative at Telford College's Muirhouse learning centre, itself part of the national lifelong learning drive and situated in the local shopping centre. It will provide learners with access to 20 personal computers linked to online learning packages.

The centre was officially opened by Baroness Smith on Wednesday as one of 35 learning centres and 20 learning points in the pound;6.7 million Up for Learning project, which aims to take learning into non-traditional locations such as supermarkets, pubs and football stadia.

On Monday, Nicol Stephen, the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, opened the Greater Pollok Learning Centre in a Glasgow housing scheme, a joint project involving Cardonald and Langside colleges, which was redeveloped at a cost of pound;334,000. There were 796 students enrolled in 1998-99, and the aim is to reach 900 this session. Among its features are a creche providing free childcare to the centre's students.

These steps were hailed by Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry (SUFI), as "the beginning of a new era in which we hope to see lifelong learning become ingrained in Scotland's culture". SUFI, now rebranded as learndirect scotland, will itself be online from October 16 to connect learners with learning opportunities. It has developed a major new database listing 40,000 courses and programmes, ranging from basic skills to masters' degrees.

It is SUFI which will be the point of contact for learners to register for individual learning accounts (ILAs). The Scottish Executive has committed pound;23 million to the initiative between now and March 2002.

The first 10,000 people aged 18 and over who register for ILAs and who make a pound;25 contribution will receive grants of up to pound;150 to help meet course costs. After the first accounts are opened, students will be entitled to 20 per cent reductions off a wide range of courses. Particular courses, such as basic computing, numeracy and communication, will qualify for higher discounts of 80 per cent to improve the most deficient skills.

Mr Stephen welcomed the network of local learning centres and the funding of ILAs as "the biggest shift in the culture of learning in the last 50 years". He said the piloting of ILAs in the north-east of Scotland, Lochaber and Fife had produced "very positive results". In the Enterprise Grampian area, for example, 40 staff in the fishing industry were able to complete ILA-funded courses ranging from forklift-truck driving to food hygiene.

The SUFI will also support the new learning centres with its learndirect scotland brand name, provided they sign up to its "pledge to learners". New guidelines for the centres, also launched by Mr McLeish last Friday, stipulate that they must "demonstrate quality in the learning process". This must include access to "skilled learning facilitators" competent in learner support and customer care. The centres in the SUFI network will also have to comply with minimum IT requirements.

Although the lifelong learning agenda enjoys broad endorsement, ministers have been urged to give priority to those in greatest learning need, not just those in employment or about to enter work. This was the view of the parliamentary enterprise and lifelong learning committee in its report on ILAs.

Stephanie Young, who heads the Executive's adult literacy task force, echoed these concerns earlier this year when she said that individual learning accounts "could reinforce existing patterns of participation rather than stimulate new participation".

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