Mark Whitehead reports on a radical scheme to encourage flexibility over 'cradle to grave' education. Ministers are studying proposals for a radical cradle-to-grave system for lifelong learning which would give everyone a "smart card" to pay for education and training.
The plan for "individual lifetime learning accounts" would represent one of the biggest-ever shake-ups in education and is seen as a way of helping the less advantaged by removing traditional barriers to educational opportunities.
The proposals by a team of consultants are among ideas being considered by ministers wanting to put proposals for "lifelong learning," outlined in a White Paper last year, into effect.
An 82-page report by a team headed by a former Department for Education and Employment assistant secretary details how smart- card technology could be used to give everyone a "learning account" to pay for everything from nursery school to retraining later in life.
Another report, commissioned for Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into higher education, by David Robertson, professor of public policy and education at John Moores University in Liverpool, is expected to recommend a ground-breaking move to set up learning accounts for university students, giving them control of spending on courses.
The Government has already pledged to set up a million learning accounts for people on training courses at a cost of Pounds 1.5 million, and Tony Blair has appointed Dr Kim Howells as minister for lifelong learning. But the ideas now being considered are far more radical than any so far mooted.
The authors of the cradle-to-grave report, Individual Lifetime Learning Accounts, say it could mean everyone having their own smart card within nine years. The card would carry information on money paid in by the Government, employers and the individual, which would be used to pay for education and training courses.
Jim Smith, former assistant secretary in charge of the individual commitment division of the DFEE, and one of the report's authors, said his proposals would help to redistribute the benefits of education towards the less advantaged by putting individuals in charge of their own learning.
It would also help break down cultural and institutional barriers to educational opportunities and encourage flexibility over learning throughout life.
But Mr Smith said the high-tech scheme would avoid expensive bureaucracy, unlike the nursery voucher system introduced last year.
"It would bring all the possible sources of finance together into one account so that someone could use the card for whatever sort of education or training they need," he added.
The scheme proposed by Mr Smith and Andrea Spurling, who work together as lifetime learning consultants, is for the cards to be linked to accounts run by banks, building societies or any other financial institution.
Grants from the Government and employers for education and training would be paid into the account, and it could also include money paid in by the card-holder.
The card would then be handed in by the learner at the start of a course and cashed by the education or training provider.
The consultants recommend a staggered introduction of the card, possibly starting with higher education. They say this would give educational institutions and politicians time to adjust to the "profound culture challenge" it would involve. It could then be extended downwards to include further education, schools and nurseries if politicians decided it was effective.
Individual Lifetime Learning Accounts by Jim Smith and Andrea Spurling, price Pounds 10 from SPJ Presentations, 7 Newlands Avenue, Skellow, Doncaster DN6 8NU. Tel 01302 723178.
The story so far:
1973 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development develops lifelong learning strategy.
1991 National Targets for Education and Training published.
1994 Launch of the World Initiative of Lifelong Learning. Unesco declares lifetime learning a basic human right.
December 1995 Newly-unified Department for Education and Employment publishes consultative document.
February 1996 European Year of Lifelong Learning.
April 1996 Campaign for Learning.
April 1997 Labour pledges a million learning accounts.
May 1997 Kim Howells appointed minister for lifelong learning.