Red tape must not strangle new learning accounts

28th December 2001 at 00:00
You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Too much bureaucracy and everybody is drowning in it. Too little and you've opened the fraud floodgates.

Just as individual learning accounts have the rug pulled from under them after too little regulation, colleges demand cuts in the red tape that goes with their own funding.

So pity for a moment the Whitehall bureaucrats trying to get it right. No more than a moment, mind you. Their instinct is always to cover every angle and cover their backs. So where you or I might think a four - page leaflet would do the trick, they prefer the 60-page dossier. I have seen ministers return many such documents. I've even sent a few back myself. The shorter version usually more than does the trick.

But this is not a game for faint hearts or consistency. Take the Conservative approach. Free schools were the answer in June. No red tape, no regulation. Now, the new shadow education secretary Damien Green tells us, the problem with Individual Learning Accounts is that they were too free. Bring back bureaucracy, all is forgiven.

The most cautious bureaucrats hated ILAs because they weren't traditionally delivered. They gave the consumer a chance to say what they wanted, not what Whitehall thought might be good for them. If they worked, there would be little chance of keeping all their pet projects, the sort of near useless scheme that made them feel reliably busy. And they secretly thanked the Treasury for insisting on minimal bureaucracy surrounding the ILAs.

Since some well-publicised failures, colleges have faced much tighter control by Government and its agencies (their latest bete noire being the Learning and Skills Council where promises of cuts in bureaucracy seem a distant memory). Should not private training companies be as tightly controlled as we are, they not unreasonably ask.

But let's be careful out there. ILA fraud was serious, but fixable. There should be a tighter rein on the companies that deliver, just as on those colleges which enthusiastically embraced them - but not too tight. One of the truly remarkable aspects of ILAs has been the way in which creative small companies have filled genuine niches in the marketplace. Some used information technology imaginatively. Others appealed to particular groups of learners. Many such firms face closure without ILAs.

Indeed, they reflected just the sort of innovative approach that the Home Secretary David Blunkett argues in his recent book is central to reviving trust between the government and the governed. The dilemma is at the heart of new Labour's approach to service delivery. If innovation is encouraged, with the consumer coming first, there will be some failures. Creativity is not risk-free.

There will always be some chancer taking advantage of easy regulation. We must do what we can to guard against him (and nobody argues that enough was done with ILAs Mark One). But with too much bureaucracy, the imaginative trainer, the creative entrepreneur and the reluctant learner may be deterred even more than the conman.

I hope that ILAs are resurrected next year. I know the Government feels like it is stuck between a rock and a hard place. But unless they return, it could set back the cause of consumer-driven innovation for a generation. Sir Humphrey may restore his grip, but adult learners will be the losers.

Unless there is at least a similarly flexible alternative (where the learner has both a say and a stake), it could also severely set back the notion of lifelong learning for all. That would be too high a price to pay for caution.

Conor Ryan was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001

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