Please break the 16-hour rule

30th September 2005 at 01:00
For those fortunate enough never to have heard of it, the 16-hour rule refers to the maximum number of hours per week an adult can study at college without being deemed to be attending full time. The significance of this is that if you attend college for any longer, you are deemed to be attending full time. If you attend college full time, you are deemed to be unavailable for work. If you are unavailable for work, you lose your benefits.

At first glance you might think that the purpose behind the rule is to prevent loafers from attending college in order to avoid real work.

However, on reflection you might conclude that any person who is prepared to attend college and study, rather than, say, stay in bed all day, is actually someone who wants to work, and who wants to obtain the qualifications needed to get a job.

The flawed nature of the 16-hour rule was brought into profile for colleges in the West Midlands region in the crisis following the closure of MG Rover. Many local employers have jobs to offer people made redundant, if they already have, or can be quickly trained in, the skills needed to do the jobs available. This is particularly the case with construction employers, who can offer literally hundreds of jobs to ex-MG Rover workers if they can be rapidly trained up to the point where they are site ready.

Once these site skills have been obtained, these same employers, with ongoing help from local colleges, will then provide further on-site assessment and training, leading to qualifications up to NVQ level 3 (A-level equivalent).

This creates a jobs and training dilemma. Redundant car workers cannot afford to study for 16 hours per week, living on benefits for a year or more until they are adequately trained. At the same time, local employers cannot afford to wait for their services since they need construction workers now. But if learners attend college for more than 16 hours per week, they lose benefits. On the other hand, if they attend for 16 hours per week or less they cannot acquire sufficient skills to become site ready. Neither can local employers make use of them on the days when they are not in college, precisely because they are not yet site ready.

Fortunately, the MG Rover Task Force intervened and managed to get the 16-hour rule waived for redundant car workers. They are now allowed to attend intensive courses of up to 35 hours per week for 13 weeks. (Those of you old enough might recognize a similarity to the old Manpower Services Commission Training Opportunities Programme here.) These shorter, more intensive programmes allow them to obtain either a Foundation or an Intermediate Construction Award, which, along with construction-related health and safety training, provides them with the skills to become site ready. Many local employers, including large firms such as Laing O'Rourke and Wilson Homes, are prepared to employ those who satisfactorily complete their course. Also, in partnership with colleges, they will offer their new employees further work-based training and assessment up to NVQ level 3.

Some people in Government will undoubtedly fear that abolishing the 16-hour rule for all education and training courses will turn the "work-shy" into permanent students. But, in MG Rover's case, abolition allowed redundant car workers to quickly find new jobs, whilst at the same time helping address severe skills shortages in the local economy.

This delivery model has also attracted considerable interest from employers in other areas experiencing skills shortages. These areas include childcare, hairdressing, catering and transport. There has also been a corresponding level of interest in shorter, more intensive courses from unemployed people with aspirations to work in these areas.

In the case of construction, the model has the added advantage of enabling colleges to "work their assets" more efficiently. For example, it avoids construction workshops being cluttered with partly finished projects, which are left standing until students return to them a week or more later. In addition, staff report improved job satisfaction, more satisfied learners, higher learner success rates and increased levels of employer engagement.

The 16-hour rule never did make much sense to those working in colleges. It probably makes even less sense to those learners I have met (none of whom I would describe as a loafer) who have been restricted by it. Replication of the successes achieved in the model described above becomes impossible if the 16-hour rule rule is rigidly applied. It is therefore high time that the rule was reviewed.

Alan Birks is principal of South Birmingham college

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