Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 87 - 99)




  87. I welcome Jane Owens and John Rodger to our deliberations. Thank you for agreeing to appear before the Committee to help us with our interesting inquiry into the Individual Learning Accounts. Last week we had an interesting session with two of the key civil servants and with some of the learning providers, which you may have seen reported. We are particularly interested in hearing your evidence because you carried out an investigation into Individual Learning Accounts quite early in their development and returned to the subject later on. We are here to learn, but we shall keep our questions reasonably short, as many members of the Committee want to ask questions, and perhaps you can give reasonably brief answers. How did the original research come about? Why did the department want you to carry out the research very early in the life of the ILAs?

  (Mr Rodger) We were approached by the department to conduct what might be described as a barometer or a dipstick research approach to look at some of the key activities, characteristics, perceptions and processes that were going on in terms of ILA operation. It was not designed as a thorough evaluation in the broadest sense of the ILAs. It was very much to get a first view of what was happening which may inform future planning, particularly the roll-out and targeting which may give a focus to future evaluation activity that may take place.

  88. You are an independent consultancy. I am delighted to see that it is based in Leeds. A large number of members of the Committee are from Yorkshire so we are pleased about that. How dependent on Government DfES contacts are you?
  (Mr Rodger) We specialise in education and training. We have a turnover of £1.5 million of which 10-20 per cent is probably DfES. We work for a large number of agencies, government agencies, local authorities and the private sector, so we have a broad client base.

  89. Last week we discovered that the balance between the Government and the department was to make a new kind of learning available with few barriers for new learners and at the same time not having any quality control built into the courses nor a substantial check on the quality of the learning that was provided. Did you pick up serious concerns of that kind early on?
  (Mr Rodger) In terms of our evaluation we focussed on the views of the account holders. We did not go into a lot of detail, looking at the procedures that the department had established for quality assurance of the programme. In a sense any quality assurance aspects that we picked up were aspects of satisfaction of the account holders. Certainly from our side, of the two investigations that we carried out—one in February last year and the second in July—we picked up high levels of satisfaction from the account holders' point of view. From a wider perspective, we did not pick up significant concerns from providers. There were one or two issues that were raised, particularly regarding aspects of qualifications, but we did not pick up any significant issues raised by providers. However, the number of providers to whom we spoke was relatively small. Overall, we were talking to 100 providers out of several thousands. It was a very qualitative piece of research.
  (Miss Owens) The 100 providers were across three of the home countries. For England 33 or 34 providers were spoken to. The only concerns that they were raising in terms of qualifications for courses, was that some providers were either advertising the fact that people could get £150 discount and not mention the £25 contribution or in a number of cases in each of the three countries in which we spoke to providers, people were claiming an 80 per cent discount on courses that were not eligible for that. For example, they were not information technology or numeracy courses.

  90. You are both highly qualified. I have look at your biographies. This would have been a scientific sample. In your survey you had a pretty good feel as to what was going on in terms of those 100 providers and also in terms of the satisfaction of the people taking the courses.
  (Miss Owens) In terms of the providers, because of the low numbers we were asked to speak to, we could not say that it was a scientific analysis; it was more a toe-in-the-water feel for any issues that may come out.

  91. You say it was not a scientific analysis?
  (Mr Rodger) In terms of statistical significance, the main survey of account holders was statistically significant, but we were talking about one thousand in each home country. The results from that are statistically significant. In terms of the providers, we only talked to 33 providers in England, so that was qualitative in nature and you could not draw statistical significance from the results that we produced.

  92. What was the Government hoping to get out of such an exercise? Presumably they set the parameters?
  (Mr Rodger) Indeed. It was meant to be indicative of types of things that may arise, to identify issues and areas that they may want to investigate further on a more substantive basis.

  93. They received results that everything seemed to be going very well.
  (Mr Rodger) In terms of some of the main findings, there were issues that with hindsight may raise some concerns. For example, there were issues that approximately a third of account holders were not aware that they had Individual Learning Accounts. Particularly in the second survey, there were issues relating to the fact that a quarter of people whom we assumed had redeemed Individual Learning Accounts, we discovered actually had not. At the time we suggested that that may be due to some data issues in terms of information given by Capita, who managed the information system. Our initial reaction was that it was probably a data issue, or may be a recording issue in terms of the information that they received. We recommended to the department that it was something that they would want to investigate; to get underneath it.

Mr Shaw

  94. In your key findings you have told us that 84 per cent of people who took up ILAs already possessed a qualification and that two-fifths possessed a qualification equivalent to NVQ level 4, and only 16 per cent had no qualifications at all. In your research were you able to establish the differing levels of satisfaction between those people with higher qualifications or some qualifications and those without?
  (Miss Owens) Yes. We asked the question about satisfaction in the first survey that was carried out in the spring and there were no significant differences in satisfaction between people with various qualifications and those with none at all. Levels of satisfaction were extremely high with the learning that was being provided at that stage.

  95. I am pleased to hear that. In the Green Paper, the Government spoke of there being a universal approach and a target approach. There is a concern that such a relatively small group of people were able to access this training. That is one of the things that we shall consider: whether there should be more targeting. In reply to the Chairman you said that you were not looking specifically at the established quality assurance that the department had put in. What was your understanding of that established quality assurance?
  (Mr Rodger) It was a bit limited. We were brought in to do a particular task.

  96. Was your understanding limited?
  (Mr Rodger) Through the information given to us by the department, it was limited. We had been involved in doing some developmental work with the TECs when developing this, so we were aware of the structure that they had produced. We were certainly aware that a light touch approach had been adopted. One of the issues through a number of the TEC initiatives was that the administrative costs to deliver the accounts was very significant. In some cases it was more than the current value. We know from that that a balance had to be struck in terms of getting a minimum cost administrative overhead, but there were also aspects of quality assurance. We knew that there was not the same level of quality assurance in place as had been in place in some development project.

  97. That was fairly obvious to you?
  (Mr Rodger) Yes.

  98. When you were undertaking your research were any alarm bells ringing in your head? As the Chairman has said, you are experienced researchers and you are familiar with this area. Were there any alarm bells ringing at all?
  (Mr Rodger) Not really. In terms of what has come out, the only potential alarm bells were around two things: one that there was a third of people who were not aware that they had accounts; and we had a quarter who were understood to have redeemed, but had not redeemed. In terms of how people heard about the accounts, in the second survey a small proportion emerged in terms of door-to-door activity.

  99. When you were discussing your findings with the DfES, did you discuss that particular group of the door-to-door people not knowing that they actually had an account? Did they express any concern about that, saying that they were looking at that or that they were worried about it?
  (Miss Owens) At the point when we . . .

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