Training delay worries TECs;FE Focus

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Adults must wait a year for Labour's flagship individual learning accounts to come on stream. Neil Merrick reports

THE Government's flagship scheme to boost investment in adult education and training is struggling to make an impact.

Nationwide introduction of individual learning accounts - which are topped-up with cash from government - has been put on hold for a year while the post-16 review is completed, training and enterprise councils were told last week.

The move has angered many TEC leaders who were expecting a considerable boost to funds through the new accounts this year. It has also fuelled doubts about the future of the training and enterprise councils - which are overseeing their introduction - under the post-16 review.

Cash-strapped training councils were advised that they no longer need to introduce as many accounts this year as they originally thought. The new accounts were due to be available nationwide from this spring.

Labour insists that it is still on course to create one million account holders by April 2002. But training councils, which were initially told that at least 100,000 learning accounts must be opened by April 2000, have since lowered their ambitions.

"The pressure to deliver that 100,000 is not as great as we thought it was," said Mary Lord, director of education and training at the TEC national council.

The accounts are a crucial part of the Government's lifelong learning strategy. Account holders, who will be eligible for discounts of up to 80 per cent when they enrol at colleges or with other trainer providers, receive pound;150 in return for investing pound;25 of their own money.

Some accounts have already been opened as part of pilots run by 14 training councils since last July (see case studies). Other councils which were not selected to run pilot schemes have also been offering accounts - some for as long as three years.

However, neither the Department for Education and Employment or the TEC national council have been able to produce accurate figures for the number of account holders. Ms Lord added: "Basically, TECs have been asked to deliver what they can. It's going to be another developmental year."

One reason for the slow introduction of the accounts is the need to ensure consistency across the UK. Councils running pilots were encouraged to develop schemes with individual banks and building societies and targeted different groups of learners.

The DFEE is discussing a national scheme with financial institutions and, in the meantime, is happy for the training councils to take things step-by-step. Ms Lord said: "We had hoped there would be a national approach by this year. The DFEE doesn't want training councils investing lots of money in administration and information technology systems when a scheme is going to be set up nationally."

The pilots, which ran for nine months until February, targeted reluctant learners. Some tested particular aspects of running accounts, such as developing smartcards to record learning.

Lincolnshire TEC, which opened 300 accounts while it was piloting the use of electronic card-readers in the workplace, is offering a further 1,000 accounts this year from a ring-fenced budget which cannot be breached.

Chief executive David Rossington explained that they have had to stop installing electronic card-readers, which cost pound;600 each, because they are too expensive. "We will not be able to use smartcard technology this year which is a disappointment to me."

Christine Davies, account project manager at Sheffield TEC, says it is "fine-tuning" its scheme to find the most worthy cases. "We are going to do some discreet marketing. We don't want to raise expectations as there is only a finite amount available."

Ministers may decide to fund all post-16 education and training through learning accounts or some sort of credit system. The Further Education Funding Council has been ordered to run a pound;2 million pilot to see how effective such a system might be, although here progress is also slow and no details have been revealed by the FEFC.

Meanwhile, another problem facing TECs is that by targeting mostly non-traditional learners, they have been forced to overlook people who are more willing to invest in their own learning and, given an extra pound;150, would jump at the chance to become an account holder.

In his March budget, Chancellor Gordon Brown said companies will be able to contribute to learning accounts held by their employees tax free, while staff using their accounts to buy training will not incur tax as they do on some other benefits and perks. Account holders will be eligible for course discounts of between 20 and 80 per cent, depending on the subjects they study.

Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Gloucestershire Link Group, which includes the local TEC, welcomes this as a sign that ministers see accounts as a "universal rather than a highly-targeted tool". He is hopeful employers will be keen to step in once government sponsorship ends, but says there are still inconsistencies over whether all account holders should receive course discounts - or just those eligible for the pound;150.

Mr Hoyle said: "We will see if there is scope to expand the market without TEC money. I believe many people are willing to make a personal investment without Exchequer support, but they ought to get the discounts as well."

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