MINISTERS have come under renewed pressure to amend a key feature of the plans for individual learning accounts (ILAs) now before Parliament in the Education and Training (Scotland) Bill.
In its scrutiny of the legislation, the enterprise and lifelong learning committee of MSPs recommended last week that learning accounts should be targeted on "those least likely to learn", not just those in employment or about to enter work.
"The legislation does not appear to recognise the barriers to access to individual learning accounts which exist in Scotland," the committee's report states. The Scottish Executive has agreed to drop the requirement to open special bank accounts because of evidence it was putting many off.
A learning accounts pilot in Grampian drew more than 2,000 learners within five months after the requirement was dropped, compared to 100 initially. An analysis by Scottish Enterprise Grampian of these early account holders showed many already had a bank account.
Evidence to the committee suggested that learning accounts, which require individuals to commit pound;25 to their training in return for pound;150 from the Government might simply be used by those who would have taken up courses anyway. The individual contribution of pound;25, which is planned to build up to 100,000 learning accounts by 2002, could be a real barrier to participation by many people from disadvantaged areas, the report states.
The concern is shared by Stephanie Young, director of lifelong learning at Scottish Enterprise Glasgow, who told MSPs: "Learning account could reinforce existing patterns of participation rather than stimulate new participation."
The committee proposes that the Executive should target a proportion of the 100,000 accounts on those least likely to learn rather than operate a "first come, first served" basis. It also recommends that Learndirect Scotland (formerly the Scottish University for Industry) should be charged with ensuring they are targeted.
The Association of Scottish Colleges backs the idea of a quota system to give priority to those in low-paid employment wanting to improve their prospects and who want to acquire skills which are in short supply.
The Scottish Executive says, however, that those who responded to its consultation on learning accounts were "generally in favour" of the accounts being primarily aimed at people in employment or who were about to return to work, although there were also calls for a clearer definition of "about to enter work".
Nicol Stephen, the Deputy Minister in charge of the Bill, has ruled out quotas in favour of effective marketing.
A special Glasgow panel on ILAs questioned the whole approach of targeting specific groups, whether in or out of work. It says that learning accounts are supposed to go beyond developing skills in the workforce to "spread a culture of lifelong learning in the UK".
Targeting them at those deemed in need also "increases the likelihood of the initiative being perceived as yet another intervention programme instead of the beginning of a national shift in thinking about learning".