Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 259-275)




  259. Mr Pitman, Mrs Betson, thank you for joining us. You have been sitting there listening patiently to the last witnesses and you come from and represent a very different sector. By way of introduction, could you say what you think about what you have heard this morning so far?

  (Mr Pitman) If I may start, I have read the transcriptions of everybody with immense interest. I think the ILA programme has, to a large extent, been a victim of its own success. I think that the new programme will be enormously helpful to vast numbers of people going forward. I think the concept of individual access and the concept of the funding following the learner has got to be right. Everyone seems committed to that. You mentioned the private and voluntary sector being very different from the colleges. Increasingly we find ourselves in partnership with colleagues in colleges who are also delivering work-based learning. I represent, as Chairman, the Association of Learning Providers; Sammy Betson runs the Information Technology Centre (ITeC) in Ipswich and has very strong experience of the details of running ILAs from the pilot schemes. I think between us we can truly represent the situation from the point of both the private and voluntary sectors. I feel that what we must do is not lose sight of what ILA has really been designed to do, which is to help people who are not currently engaged in learning, principally, but not exclusively, so that they can carry out their jobs better or, indeed, prepare themselves for jobs which they have not had before for various reasons (having a family or changing jobs, whatever it happens to be). I think we need to focus on that. I do believe that we need very much to look at the other aspects other than the very important ICT aspects of the ILA programme. I think we need much better emphasis on the basic skills side, the literacy and numeracy side, to help the vast numbers of people who have difficulties in those areas. I think it is a very exciting programme and I think as we move forward, learning the lessons of what happened so far—I am not quite sure yet how serious those problems have been—we will end up with a first-rate programme which will really achieve its objectives and benefit vast numbers of people and, indeed, the whole question of life-long learning.

  260. Mrs Betson, what do you think of the present situation? How soon do you want to see a replacement and what would it look like for you?
  (Mrs Betson) Tomorrow would be nearly soon enough, Chairman. Can I just say, though, that I did not find there to be a significant difference between the experience of Preston College and the experience we had ourselves. In fact, the similarities are rather more striking than the differences. I accept that we are on a very considerably smaller scale. They have some 5,000 people, we have 500; we have 89 per cent of those actually achieve qualifications. Can I just pick up on the point about not giving ILAs perhaps to people who previously have achieved a qualification. My understanding of life-long learning is not that you achieve one qualification and that is it: one hit and you are out of the system. I have to say that, reading the CVs of the people around the table now, none of you now are in the same occupation that you were trained in originally. I would suggest that, like a lot of us, you have probably changed more than once along the way. Did you assume that you would have no training for your new occupation?

  261. I think you are getting into murky territory!
  (Mrs Betson) I will pull back from that one.

  262. It is a very good question, Mrs Betson. I asked the Minister himself if he was involved in lifelong learning.
  (Mrs Betson) We should not lose sight of that, nor should we lose sight of the fact that the Department took a very bold step in moving forward with ILAs. I have been in training since 1982 and the ITeC has been set up since 1984, so I am afraid I go back to the days of the MSC and the various formats it went through until it has now become the LSC. I have been involved with FE funding franchises. I am afraid I am one of that small but awful band of people who takes money at the bottom end of that side as well. However, I believe we have a good track record. We have very much experienced the same as Preston College, where we had a number of Government initiatives pulled out from under our feet. Like the College, we have generally tried to cover the Government's back in being the coal-face people, representing the Government to individuals who are coming in for the learning experience at the time. On this particular occasion, with the ILAs, they have dropped us in it quite considerably.

  263. Have you lost money as a business?
  (Mrs Betson) I cannot quantify losing money, Chairman, in quite the same way. We are owed something in the order of £8,000 for training we had delivered. I would not like to put a figure on the amount that we may subsequently lose in terms of lost opportunity from that business point of view—not in quite the same way as the College. We certainly have found ourselves in a position where our cash-flow has taken a very serious knock. In fact the Finance Director sees the bank manager this afternoon. I know, from discussions with the Principal of Preston College just before we came in, that the question of whether or not we would participate in a future scheme is whether we have a spoon long enough. I am afraid that the bank manager may question whether we do have a spoon long enough. I personally would like to be involved, and I think the majority of the members of the voluntary and private sector do see it as a very good route forward. There has been a somewhat unreasonable expectation as yet that we should have already, within the very short lifetime of this scheme, reached into the further regions of the disenfranchised, the disenchanted, the disaffected, who have not previously participated, and that overnight the mere introduction of the ILAs should bring in this cohort. It is unreasonable to have expected the colleges to have turned this round overnight, or to have expected the private or voluntary sector to do so. I do think that the figures that have come through so far in the take-up indicate that we have quite significantly started to move it forward.

Mr Pollard

  264. The previous witness suggested that the Government had targeted the wrong thing, in that the Government has targeted fraud, and the witness suggested that it is quality that should have been targeted. I wonder whether you can take us through that. Secondly, the anecdotal evidence suggests that people were knocking on doors, handing over a disk and saying "sign the form" and that was the end of it. Was that your experience, and would you have expected to have been a whistle-blower in that case and said, "hang on a minute, something has gone wrong here"? Did you do that?
  (Mrs Betson) I had very limited personal experience of the situation. I did hear of people in the local area who were knocking on doors. I have no direct experience. I have had personal experience of customers of ours who have had their ILA taken, or assumed, or acquired by other people without them being aware of it. The point at which we became aware of it was when they came to register with us; we went back to Capita to register their numbers with them and were told that that had already been taken and used. It was very difficult to blow the whistle. The first attempt I made was very early on in the scheme. I got back to Capita to say there had been this instance of someone we were dealing with through the Shaw Trust (a local organisation that deals with people who are recovering from mental illness or have some mental disability) being very confused by a doorstep salesman. She was very unsure about what was going on. I went back to Capita on this and in fact I was refused any opportunity to talk to a supervisor or to customer services. In fact, it was very difficult to get anywhere with their customer services line other than, "thank you, we have made a note of it".
  (Mr Pitman) The important point here is quite simply that all education training needs to have very clearly-defined objectives and ends. If you have achieved that, then you are on the way to success commercially and from the point of view of those who are learning. In Pitman's, long before NVQs were even thought of, we were training to very clearly-defined objectives. We were doing that not because someone told us to, but because that is what the market wanted. We all know that as we moved from the 72 TECs to the 47 local learning and skills councils, everyone, working together, was seeking a rate for the job and then a real boost to quality. That is moving forward a bit slower than some of us might wish, but nonetheless it is moving forward, and we are heading in the right direction. We are all trying to do the same thing, whether colleges in the public and private sector or any other organisation. Unfortunately, that has been lacking in this programme so far.


  265. Sometimes, does not quality assurance lead to the sort of bureaucracy that the Principal of Preston College was concerned about? The fact is that the Minister told this Committee some weeks ago that the beauty of the ILA was that if you were a consumer, just as you do not take someone by the hand and take them into the Co-op or into Harrods, they make a decision to buy a product because they are adults and can make a decision about what is a quality product. Why is it that someone has to guide, and tell and filter information when it comes to educational choice? Was not one of the beauties of the ILA that it left it up to the consumer? If you bought a rather shoddy good, that was what he or she chose.
  (Mr Pitman) That was one of the beauties of ILA mark 1, and we must not lose sight of that. At the same time, like everything else it is a question of balance. It may well be that that was not tied up enough and there was not enough bureaucracy in ILA mark 1. We are looking at a control here; we are looking at advice to the individuals. We are setting ourselves a pretty massive agenda for the benefit of the learner. One thing that is absolutely clear is that the advice to individuals needs to be improved so that they know what they are letting themselves in for. They are encouraged to take these programmes because they will be of benefit to them, and they are helped financially. We must not lose sight of that. I do feel that from the point of view of the LSCs—and they will speak for themselves after this session—they have a tremendous amount on their plate. They have a massive budget of £6.5 billion, of which the Association of Learning providers (ALP) is interested in £1.5 billion, which is the work-based learning side of life. They do have an enormous amount on their plate, as a new organisation, to take over from ten years of the TECs and get the ship moving along. This is an enormous volume of work that would perhaps come their way.

  266. Mrs Betson, what is your view of this? Is it not rather patronising for the education sector to come in and say, "you cannot trust the consumer"? Why should not ILA2 be successful and still be a very light touch? Mr Ingleson was very worried about what LSCs were going to do, and the sort of bureaucracy and demands involved. We are hearing very mixed messages about how intelligent and well-informed the consumers are, and their ability to make reasonable choices. Are you being patronising in saying that you need to hold their hands when choosing an educational product as opposed to any other product?
  (Mrs Betson) I do not think it is necessarily a matter of holding their hand, Chairman. If I go into the Co-op—and I am not yet aware that the Government is paying me to go in and spend my money in there—I have to have generally earned it first of all. In the education sector and the training sector as a whole, we are looking at considerable amounts of Government money. As an earning taxpayer, I do need to see some control over where it is going. I agree that the local LSCs probably have a role in the initial recommendation and possibly selection of providers, providing that does not mean that they then put the block on it and say "we have got the ones we want, and we want no more". I would not want to see that, because I think the ILAs have allowed a degree of innovative and very flexible provision to be made. The national LSC probably is best kept as far out of it as possible because it does have a very considerable remit at the moment in all its other areas. If we look at the ILA as being not in itself an education scheme but as a purchase scheme, which is actually what it is, then we can look at this from a slightly different point of view. I share the concerns of everyone else within the sector, in that we get painted very black by exactly this sort of experience; there is a percentage of rogue providers, possibly not even what one might call legitimate providers in established terms, that brings us all into disrepute and create a great deal of financial difficulty. You made a comment earlier about compensation to providers. Obviously, I have a vested interest, but my concern is about compensation to the individuals. A significant number of them were caught at the end of November, and where Preston College has perhaps been able to honour every one of the agreements they had made with potential learners, we have not all been able to do that.
  (Mr Pitman) It might be useful, Chairman, to look at the provider base, as represented by the Association of Learning Providers, which is virtually the trade association base. That is a base of 1,200 providers, not including the colleges providing work-based learning, so it is representing the private and voluntary sector. A very big provider has about 7,000-8,000 people on its programmes; a very small provider has under 10 people on its programme, and so there is a huge diversity here. Those providers have been developed over the last 18 years by the various agencies and by government to be very high-quality providers. They are not to be confused with 8,500 people who have been brought in for delivery of ILAs. Clearly, there is an overlap, but when I was preparing for today I circulated the Construction Industry Training Board and major employers represented on the Association of Learning Providers. Most of them have not touched ILAs for various reasons, and I do think that they need to be encouraged in to help provide and deliver ILA mark 2.

Jeff Ennis

  267. Mr Pitman, you have just remarked upon the fact that one of the direct consequences of the ILA scheme has been enormous expansion in the number of learning providers. Looking back in hindsight at the scheme, should the Government not have provided a check or balance?
  (Mrs Betson) If you are looking to what was an innovative scheme, quite unlike anything that had been brought in before, then I think you are stepping into unknown waters. It is a high-risk area, and you have to take that risk as a calculated risk and say, "do we look for that additional provision; do we look for something innovative; where are we going?" Mr Gibson commented earlier on the fact that the paperwork to become an approved provider at the moment for LSC funding is enough to daunt the strongest heart, and I agree. Having been through that process a number of times over a number of years and having been through the various auditing processes that inevitably follow through, it is not something that I would recommend somebody to take on lightly. I have to say that I think it would be a brick wall in the way. We are talking of public funding, and therefore there has to be some sort of check and balance. It is right that at some point within a year or so of the start of the scheme, there is some means of looking at the provision that is being made and the people it is being made by, and asking if that is what we are looking for. I think that perhaps it should have been brought in a little bit sooner, and there does have to be some form of initial quality assurance that is more than, "what is your bank account number and what is your address?" That is effectively what it came down to.

  268. You mentioned that some of the additional learning providers that came in were rogue providers, and that that is currently being investigated by the Department; so you are admitting that there is an element of rogue providers.
  (Mrs Betson) I am assuming that only from the fact that you made the statement earlier on that there are providers being investigated by the police, and I am assuming therefore that there are rogue providers.

  269. Are you saying we should not have some form of accreditation? Can you expand on what sort of check and balance it should have?
  (Mrs Betson) I go back, Chairman, to what I said about the local LSCs. I think they are the right people because they do have the local knowledge and know the local individuals. They are well placed to be able to give some guidance, some steer, some indication of the validity and standing of an applicant in that area, which is why I would not see that being pushed back to a national level, but I would not see them taking that much further other than possibly picking up general local complaints.
  (Mr Pitman) Within the 47 local area scheme, we have the structure in acceptable local authority boundaries, and the whole thing is settled now and could not be better. Certainly, they do have a local dimension, as Sam says; they have local knowledge. The 1,200 providers who are in contact with the Learning Skills Council and Employment Service are a very highly regulated body of people. The monitoring, reviewing and checking and everything else is very advanced. I am not suggesting that those people should be the only people delivering ILAs; there is a huge raft of people who are not contracting with the local LSC, who are well-established providers, particularly in the IT training world. They need to be brought in. We need new entrants and new imaginative ways of teaching things.

Valerie Davey

  270. I have a very brief question—and I got a very brief answer last time: how helpful were Capita?
  (Mrs Betson) To us as providers? They are sometimes difficult to get hold of. Individuals tend to be a little more helpful, but once we came to the point where there were difficulties with people having had their ILAs used, then it became very difficult to get through to them.

  271. Was it just a matter of getting through to them, or when you did get through to them, what was the quality of the house they then provided?
  (Mrs Betson) It tended to be, "we will get back to you by tomorrow".

  272. Did they?
  (Mrs Betson) No.

Mr Simmonds

  273. I was intrigued by your comments earlier about the fact that ILAs had not reached many people, or a small number of people who do not have any qualifications at all. I am sure we all agree that lifelong learning is beneficial and very positive. Do you think that things could have been done differently to target those individuals with no qualifications, to bring them into the ILA structure? Do you think enough was done, and do you think that with a successor more could be done to attract those people into the system?
  (Mrs Betson) Chairman, I am always concerned when we look at what starts out as a universal scheme, and finishes up being terribly targeted.

  274. You are in favour of universality.
  (Mrs Betson) Indeed I am. I believe that we were starting to get to the target areas, and by definition they have been out of the education and training system, and that is why we are trying to get at them, because they have been out of it. You cannot then expect them to be first through the door, when you then open the door to them through the ILA or any similar system. Therefore, you must allow for the scheme to get going, for it to get validity, and for word of mouth to come in. We are working with travellers in the local community. I have been told by the travellers' education officer that once you have got the first two in, you have them all in; but it is getting the first two in.

  275. Are you saying that if the Government had not pulled the plug, for whatever reason, at the back end of last year, more people at the lower end, who we are trying to bring into ILAs would have come into the system by now? The very fact that it was pulled, stopped that happening.
  (Mrs Betson) I cannot prove it, Chairman, obviously, but that is very much my feeling. That is my considerable opinion. We had started to move the groundswell forward.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for answering our questions.

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