Voucher scheme stays in credit despite failure and farce

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Prime Minister John Major made a firm pledge to have learning credits for all 16- to 19-year-olds in place within two years at the launch of the first competitiveness White Paper in 1994.

His commitment was applauded by the Confederation of British Industry whose policy it had been since 1989. The CBI welcomed the commitment to "a level playing field on funding" for all school sixth-forms, colleges and private schemes paid for by the training and enterprise councils for the age group.

In May 1994, 60,000 school-leavers were given "vouchers" to buy education and training under a three-year training credit pilot scheme. But 12 months later at the launch of the second competitiveness White Paper - reviewing Government performance and setting out policies - enthusiasm had cooled.

A damning report on the pilot from consultants Coopers Lybrand warned of overwhelming bureaucracy and a system which would cost Pounds 535 million as it would also have to be open to the independent sector. Some pilot schemes were reduced to the level of farce when students tried to poke the smart cards, which carried the credits, into their bank's hole-in-the-wall cash machine - in one case jamming the entire electronic network.

Efforts to eliminate funding differences between the cheaper Training and Enterprise Council schemes and those run by colleges led to deficits of up to Pounds 400,000 in some colleges.

But Michael Portillo, the then Employment Secretary, was said to be "spitting teeth" over the cowardice of his colleagues. A senior Department for Education source told The TES the issue was "by no means dead". Mr Portillo had found the report "nebulous" in the extreme.

"If he was in control you would have them next week," the education department source had said. The majority of the Cabinet was behind credits and they would be back on the agenda within the year.

And they were. A new evaluation of post-16 funding figures, carried out by the merged Department for Education and Employment, suggested that previous analyses of differences in costs between schools and colleges were wrong - there was, in fact, little difference.

An ebullient Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, announced at the launch of the third White Paper last week that credits were back on the agenda.

A consultation paper can be expected this autumn which will bring together the existing duties of the various funding bodies into a new individual entitlement to learning and careers guidance for 16 to 19-year-olds.

What little differences there were in institutional costs would be eliminated. The DFEE was working to secure greater "convergence" of funding arrangements for school sixth-forms, FE colleges and work-based training, including the introduction of an element of payment-by-results funding for school sixth-forms.

This may not have the full thrust of the piloted credits. And the consultations will be carried out, as the White Paper puts it, "with a view to phased implementation from 1997". But bigger changes are on the cards.

Mrs Shephard told The TES after the launch: "We remain attracted to the idea of learning credits.

"At the moment, there is the guarantee of a Youth Training place, entitlement to careers guidance and a duty on FE to provide a place to anyone who wants it. We want to bring these together."

Almost everyone looking at the white paper could smell vouchers - though ministers studiously avoid the word. Opposition parties see a step-by-step approach: eliminating funding differences first, introducing some element of payment-by-results next, following this with having all the cash follow the student and then issuing the cash to the student as a voucher.

Even groups within the Conservative party see this as a likely policy development route if they are returned to office. However, Demitri Coryton, chairman of the Conservative Education Association, said: "Sir Keith Joseph as Education Secretary started looking at them with great enthusiasm. In the end he concluded they were a duffer and he dropped them. Vouchers will also make no difference to Britain's competitiveness. They are peripheral, a distraction. "

There is widespread concern, too, that such proposals detract from the successes of initiatives covered by the competitiveness white papers.

These include the Pounds 5m voucher scheme to ensure that there is management training available for the 2,000 newly appointed headteachers each year, the improved careers advice entitlement for 13, 15 and 17-year-olds, the modern apprenticeship (though this has had mixed fortunes) and the Pounds 31m to be spent on improved vocational teaching materials.

The success in promoting information technology skills among young people is also partly attributed to initiatives taken under the first two competitiveness White Papers.

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