Colleges should not be penalised if welfare-to-work trainees leave early to take up a job or another course, Scottish MPs have told the Government.
The all-party Scottish Affairs Committee, in a report last week on the Pounds 3.5 billion new deal initiative, supports the criticism from FE principals and other providers of training that they will only be paid in full if the young unemployed on the full-time education and training option achieve agreed qualifications and hold down a job for three months.
The rules stipulate that 20 per cent will be paid out once the qualifications goal has been reached and 10 per cent when the young person finds a job. The total payments are in three bands to reflect different course costs and amount to Pounds 1,700, Pounds 2,050 and Pounds 2,650 for each trainee over one year. The levels have been criticised as too low, although they will be supplemented by a weekly training allowance of Pounds 43 a week.
A paper to the committee from the Scottish Office is clear: "Generally those completing education after a year will move into employment. The 10 per cent would not normally be payable for those moving into another education course. "
This appears to be at odds with evidence to the committee by Brian Wilson, the Education and Industry Minister. After questioning from David Marshall, the Glasgow Labour MP who chairs the committee, Mr Wilson said: "If people leave an option and take up a job, then that is a success."
He declared: "The provider will not be penalised." Indeed, "they will get a gold star".
But it remains unclear what happens if a young person is unable to find a job four months after leaving the programme, as opposed to leaving early for employment, or prefers to remain in education.
MPs are unequivocal, stating: "Providers should receive full payment for the provision if the client either leaves early to take a job or enters full-time education."
Colleges have objected to being judged on criteria which depend on the state of the economy rather than the state of further education. But once again the committee drew encouragement from Mr Wilson's assurance that evaluation "will not just be about numbers but about quality". There would be "another hard to define criterion which is employability," he said. "So there will be people who are employable but who might not yet be employed and that will be another success."
But even this refinement stopped short of a firm undertaking that any shortfall in payments would be met. The MPs commend a proposal from the Scottish Association for Mental Health that the "distanced travelled" in attempting to become employable could be used to judge the success of the programme.
An evaluation of the new deal should include tracking the progress of participants throughout the whole five-year life of the programme, the committee suggests.
The choice of full-time education and training is one of the four new deal options and the only one to last a year. The other three are six-month placements with an employer, a voluntary organisation or the environmental task force, where colleges will provide off-the-job training.
The full-time education and training option is intended to boost low skill levels for the estimated 50 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds who are not qualified to SVQ level II or above. But Mr Wilson made it clear in his evidence that there would also be an option to take qualifications in literacy, numeracy and English where it was not the first language.
Flexibility is to be the key, he told the committee in his evidence. "If what a client is doing leads to an obviously useful qualification, that can very easily be accommodated within the programme."
Mr Wilson also told John McAllion, Labour MP for Dundee East, that the training element in the six-month options could be extended if this proved insufficient to gain a qualification.
If a new deal client "is so far along the road towards qualifications and then if further education is the proper option for them, that is the job of the system to deliver", Mr Wilson said.
CLIENT BASE HALVES
The number of unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds eligible for the new deal is shrinking, MPs heard. It was 24,500 in July 1996 and had more than halved by December. Half of the target population are in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Tayside, with a third in Glasgow alone. The Scottish Office assumes that around 2,700 young people will move into full-time education and training, a quarter of the current total.