Target the needs, not the cheats

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Tom Kelly argues that individual learning accounts will not boost learning among those who are most in want

THE criticism of the first scheme of Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) by the Auditor-General is enough to make even the most battle-hardened bureaucrat wince. The cause was a worthy one and the project became very high profile. Inevitably, the outcome leaves major questions as to how and why things went wrong.

This is not just review with the benefit of hindsight. Warnings were given but not heeded. Will the right lessons have been learnt by the time ILA 2 comes along?

The Auditor-General for Scotland had a great deal to say about whether the funds for ILA 1 were spent in the way intended. But the scheme may not have been successful even if outright fraud and misappropriation had been avoided. From the outset, the Association of Scottish Colleges had argued that there had to be some form of accreditation for learning providers. The answer was that "learner choice" would ensure quality.

The theory was that learners would obtain the voucher and then decide - with the help of impartial intermediaries such as Learndirect Scotland - where best to spend it. In practice, as any salesman would have spotted, providers assisted learners to apply for the voucher at the same time as enrolling them for its use.

At the very least, ILA 2 is not going to be any sort of "crook's charter".

Instead of a private contractor unused to the peculiarities of enrolment for education courses, the full panoply of the Student Awards Agency for Scotland will be available.

So that's all right then? Well, maybe not. It wasn't just that ILA 1 left a back window open to opportunist crooks. First come, first served meant many unintended takers benefited.

Contrary to the ideologues in Whitehall and "close to Government" think-tanks, there is no overall shortage of demand for lifelong learning.

There is massive unsatisfied demand for basic IT qualifications - such as the European Computer Driving Licence - which should be addressed.

The problem is that this demand is so heavily concentrated among those who are already highly qualified and highly specialised. It does seem bizarre that 40 per cent of ILA 1 account holders were management or professional workers and only 24 per cent of account holders were employed in small companies (a main target group for the scheme).

At the heart of this issue lies one of the main dilemmas about lifelong learning. Unless the country invests in educating people who lack the skills needed for today's and tomorrow's jobs, we will lose out. But not all education and training is investment. A lot of learning is consumption to satisfy the aspirations and needs of individuals rather than those of employers and society. This is no bad thing and indeed may be the mark of an advanced and civilised society. The difficult job is stimulating demand where it is weak among those with low levels of skill and attainment and among the low paid in work.

Colleges already have a very good instrument to hand for drawing in learners who are living on different forms of benefit. The "fee waiver" scheme offers free tuition - even for short and part-time courses - to those who qualify.

More cash for fee waivers - and encouragement for colleges to target the disadvantaged - would have earned a much better return than ILA 1 for this group. It would also have avoided the on-cost of nearly a third of the budget which had to be spent on administration and marketing of ILA 1 by intermediary bodies (Learndirect Scotland and the enterprise networks).

For the low paid in the workplace, more stimulus to take part in lifelong learning is required. Extra help must be targeted at both employers and employees. New ways of doing so are being developed - for example, schemes involving union "learning representatives" and the intended piloting of "business learning accounts". Properly set up and funded, these sorts of schemes should ensure that take-up by low-paid workers increases.

Behind the scenes, a lot of work has been going on to make sure that ILA 2 does not reproduce the obvious faults of ILA 1. This is all to the good and the Association of Scottish Colleges and others have been glad to assist these efforts. But the reservations about outcomes have still to be answered.

It is simply not good enough to spend large sums of money on "voucherising" learning people would do anyway. How many of those who took ILA 1 vouchers will continue with their studies toward substantial qualifications?

Instead of following England, next time Scotland should have a solution that will target Scots who stand to benefit most. Stimulating lifelong learning is not rocket science. It does not need artificial boosts to administrative on-costs and benefits for unintended recipients. What it does need is more realistic and sustained funding for delivery of real courses to those who need them most.

Tom Kelly is chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges. He writes in a personal capacity.

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