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Scots dip toes into fresh accounts

So the Government has announced details of its plans for reintroducing individual learning accounts. Two years after the old scheme collapsed in allegations of fraud and abuse, the aim is now to administer ILAs through a personal virtual account, allowing learners to claim up to pound;200 a year to fund a course of their choice. A pilot scheme, launched in the summer, is to be opened up to people on incomes of under pound;15,000 a year. If all goes to plan, a universal scheme will be rolled out in April 2005.

The government in question is the Scottish Executive, which is setting aside pound;40 million to cover the scheme until spring 2006. A similar venture has been under way for a year in Wales. By comparison the hints and promises on the English side of the border, and in Northern Ireland, are sweet nothings. Yet even though many people will warmly welcome the return of ILAs, and despite reassurances about new safeguards, the initiative is still risky.

ILAs are meant to build a learning culture. In a society that is notoriously reluctant to embrace change, the idea of ILAs was warmly welcomed by the Fryer Committee as an incentive to learning, particularly for those with little previous success. Last time round, of course, most ILAs were taken by the best educated rather than by those with the lowest levels of access to learning. For ILAs to make any difference to people's willingness to learn, they have to be widely available and easy to obtain.

The scheme has to be publicised, application processes have to be fast and simple, administration must be flexible, and the package must offer an attractive incentive. At the same time, ILAs have to help government to achieve its goals. In this case, the aim is to promote particular types of lifelong learning; a secondary aim is to avoid any whiff of abuse.

For ILAs to meet public-sector targets, they have to be highly focused and strictly controlled. By comparison with Wales, the Scottish system will be notably stingy. Where the Welsh can study virtually any subject, Scots will be limited to basic ICT skills and qualifications, at least for the time being. The Welsh scheme is targeted - logically enough - at people with few or no existing qualifications, but also on people receiving benefits, the Scottish scheme on people with low incomes. Both schemes will involve rigorous audit.

So the two principles behind ILAs - creating incentives to learn and avoiding fraud - are pretty much in contradiction with each other. Scottish providers are worried about the bureaucracy of registering with the scheme as approved providers, and there are concerns over the impact of audit and monitoring. In the end, providers are likely to benefit only if they can get a high volume of throughput. Adapting monitoring regimes to satisfy the ILA scheme is only worthwhile if a lot of people bring their pound;200 vouchers through your doors. So smaller providers will be excluded - yet small voluntary providers are often trusted in disadvantaged communities, while large commercial and public-sector agencies are not.

There are also obstacles for learners. The Welsh scheme distinguishes between different categories of benefit. Scotland is planning universal eligibility, but in the meantime will work around a mixture of a maximum income threshold and particular defined benefits. As well as making the scheme complex for learners, these principles also bring in more than a whiff of the workhouse.

Yet such tensions are an inevitable companion of any measure that requires government to trust its own citizens. And only by trusting citizens can you persuade them to change. The Scottish and Welsh decisions, imperfect as they are, can still be warmly welcomed as an attempt to encourage more people to do more learning than they would otherwise do.

Meanwhile, ministers are holding back in England, arguing that there are already plenty of individual incentive schemes that somehow preserve the spirit if not the name of ILAs. No doubt they will keep a close eye on developments among the Celts. But for the short term at least, fear of public accusations of waste and abuse will keep ILAs off the English agenda until there is clear evidence that the scheme can be made to work.

John Field is deputy principal at Stirling university. His most recent book is Social Capital, published by Routledge in 2003

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