Treasury blocks `learning banks'

8th December 1995 at 00:00
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, has lost a fight with the Treasury over plans to spike Labour's guns by introducing training accounts for adult learners.

The proposals were in a leaked draft of the Government's consultation paper on lifetime learning. But they are omitted from the final version, published this week. The Treasury blocked the move towards such training accounts because of the perceived long-term cost to the taxpayer.

Education and employment ministers hoped that by introducing the principal in the consultation paper, they would steal ground from Labour, which proposes a "learning bank" in which the state, employers and the individual would invest for education and retraining throughout life.

The idea came from the Commission for Social Justice set up by the late Labour leader John Smith and adopted by Tony Blair when he proposed radical policy changes for education and training.

The Treasury defeat puts the Tories at odds not only with Labour but with the Confederation of British Industry and the European Commission, both of which have published papers this week backing the idea of learning accounts.

The EC White Paper, Teaching and Learning, goes against the grain of British government, calling for increased public investment in lifetime learning, and a "training fund" for people wanting to update knowledge or resume training.

The Commission has already recommended bigger tax breaks for companies which prove they are investing in training. The whole package, laid out in the White Paper, will be put to leaders of 15 EU nations at a summit conference in Madrid next weekend in preparation for 1996 as the European Year of Lifelong Learning.

Meanwhile, the chorus of protests against the perceived inadequacies of the British lifetime learning consultation paper started by the Labour leak increases .

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the key agent for seeing through government policy on adult learning, is sceptical. Alan Tuckett, its director, said: "The aims of the consultation paper are salutory. But the measures proposed are woefully inadequate."

Peter Davis, chairman of the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets, said: "In July we warned that unless there was a marked change in approach among employers generally, matched by a concerted drive to harness the commitment of adults to upgrade their skills and qualifications, the lifetime targets would not be achieved."

Ministers admit in the consultation paper that an unacceptable 40 per cent of adults never undertake further education or training and that only 7 per cent of those over 25 pursue a qualification. College and employment-based training courses were often inflexible and equal opportunities measures fell short of what the country needed.

Like the European paper, the Government acknowledges that individuals must take more responsibility for their own education and training as jobs become less secure and contracts shorter. But it falls well sort of the European vision of a shared agenda for change.

The European paper stresses the need to "give people the skills and qualities needed throughout life." It puts particular emphasis on helping the "excluded" back into mainstream society.

Mr Tuckett says the Government falls short on the latter aim, putting too much emphasis on those already in employment or training in an effort to reach the national education and training targets.

Ministers agree that urgent measures to improve education and training are needed. The Government admits in the consultation document that "the scale of current lifetime learning remains well below the level required."

James Paice, the education and employment minister, said: "One of the best ways of ensuring against the potential exclusion of sections of our population is to encourage and foster a culture of lifetime learning."

Bryan Davies, Labour's further and higher education spokesman, said: "The Government knows that no economy can afford the exclusion of a significant minority from education and training as we have at present. The Government must use this consultation report to act."

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