Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 168 - 179)




  168. Can I welcome Alastair Thomson and Sue Cara. Would either of you like to make a very brief opening statement, and I do accentuate "brief"?
  (Mr Thomson) Thank you, Chairman. I guess NIACE exists to look at what benefits learners in perspective to learners. We are able to do this because although our membership is composed almost exclusively of providers, it is particularly broad, so we are not to be the voice of any particular sectional interest and whilst we understand the concerns expressed by providers, especially those in the community-based sector, we are not here to think primarily of them. ILAs were not set up to provide an income stream for providers; they were set up for learners. Our primary concern as an organisation is about who participates and who does not and that, I guess, is going to shape whatever testimony we give. As an organisation, we support the aims to expand provision and widen participation and we recognise that along with UfI (University for Industry, Individual Learning Accounts were a Manifesto commitment, but I have to say we were surprised at how much priority they had, as a flagship policy, since they were relatively untested, so we saw them as a bold experiment which could be extremely useful in expanding the learning community, but I think it is fair to say that we were supporters rather than champions of the idea.

  169. Why do you think the Government pulled the plug?
  (Ms Cara) My understanding is, like the colleagues who were here previously, that fraud is a large issue and I know no more about why the Government pulled the plug than I have read in the papers.

  170. A large number of your members were fiddling the system? Is that right?
  (Ms Cara) Certainly I am sure that none of our members was fiddling the system, but I do know that in the summer we did hear some anecdotes from our members, and our members would normally be members of the provider system, that they were concerned. We heard anecdotal evidence that they were concerned about the behaviour of some providers.

  171. When did you first pick up these anecdotes?
  (Ms Cara) I am only conscious of picking up anecdotes, I would say, in the late summer, one or two stories, and it is very difficult to give credence to stories which come from providers who are in competition with other providers, so one or two stories and no more than that.

  172. So you are totally convinced that the Government pulled the plug because of the growing amount of fraud and nothing to do with the growing number of accounts taken out and the cost to the Government?
  (Ms Cara) Yes, but we do understand that but for ourselves we had a concern about the number of people who were taking out ILAs who might have learned anyway, they might have paid for themselves.

Mr Baron

  173. You have mentioned in the past other initiatives that you have been involved with, such as the Adult Learners' Week. It had a great success in reaching its target audience. What lessons do you think can be learned with regard to a version Mark II of ILAs to ensure that we do try to get better targeting with regard to those groups that we really want to reach?
  (Mr Thomson) Certainly I think one of the most important things to do is to integrate Individual Learning Accounts rather more than was the case before with information, advice and guidance provision. I think a purely information-based system, such as learndirect, is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Learners who are not confident and do not know how the system works do need more support as well.
  (Ms Cara) I think as well that any scheme that is reintroduced should try in part to build on initiatives for wider participation anyway, so I think things like being conscious of the role that things like the Union Learning Fund and union representatives can play, building on initiatives like Bite-Size Chunks which have been shown to draw in disadvantaged learners. One of the things that we found in our work with looking after the Adult Community Learning Fund, which is a chunk of learning that we manage for the Government, is that when you recruited very disadvantaged people, Individual Learning Accounts have played a huge part in enabling them to continue from their very first toe in the water approach because you have got the chance to introduce the idea, the chance to give them guidance and also of course the chance to point them in the direction of adult providers who are going to give them a further good experience.

  174. Can I draw you on that specifically and ask what measures specifically should a Mark II version have in order to increase the chances of better targeting?
  (Ms Cara) I think a clear idea of the targets to be met, which groups are being targeted, and I think a clear idea of the kind of intermediaries and suppliers who would be involved with those target groups, so I think something around that, and I think niche marketing to those groups and building on other initiatives would be needed.

  175. We have looked at how we can improve targeting, but the other question I would like to ask is how can we cut down on the fraud side of things? In your experience, what measures should be introduced in the Mark II to try and ensure that fraud is not as prevalent as apparently it has been with Mark I?
  (Mr Thomson) I think there is a very strong case to look again at rooting the new mechanism more locally, either regionally or sub-regionally through the local Learning Skills Councils. That would cause some problems for national providers as there is a high proportion of open and distance learning which does not respect geographical boundaries, but I think, as the Committee has suggested to earlier witnesses, that does allow people to keep their ears to the ground and to get a sense of dodgy practice and nip it in the bud early.

  176. So what you are suggesting is that if you can try and localise the provision as much as possible, whether through TECs, and we have just heard from the TUC and Usdaw that they seem to have been quite successful in ensuring, one, that the course is properly targeted and, two, that the providers that they have been involved with, there were not too many fraudulent providers, is that what you are after?
  (Ms Cara) I believe that an element of local knowledge can be very important in this. There is the issue about ILAs being a way to encourage new providers to come into the field and I do think that in reaching the groups we would be particularly interested in, new providers are necessary and I do not think you can rely on the kind of formal system and nobody would want to encourage a cartel. I do think that local knowledge does mean that you could at least have a system where even if there was national registration there could be local vetoing on providers who were known to be suspect or not known or impossible to identify. I do think that an element of local control or an element of local input into this would be invaluable in ensuring that providers were better. I think that should be followed up not by a heavy bureaucratic load on providers, but I think you should do some spot monitoring and auditing, I would think that LSCs locally might be a part of that.

  177. So what you are saying is that the Government has got to be more flexible in its thinking on this. As a Conservative, I am willing to accept that there are good aspects of unions as well as bad aspects, but on this occasion maybe they could provide a positive role, and that is what you are saying, greater flexibility?
  (Mr Thomson) Flexibility would also give the advantage of allowing a more differentiated scheme and you could target areas that are of urban renewal priority.
  (Ms Cara) And local knowledge would ensure that providers that target well were encouraged.

Jeff Ennis

  178. Going back partly to John's first question, you have provided us with some quite startling figures as comparisons with effective schemes. The ILA scheme was supposed to try and mainly get people with no training or no recent training, but only got to about 18 per cent, whereas things like the Adult Learners' Week, you were saying, 55 per cent of the callers had no previous experience of learning, so a scheme like that had a much higher hit rate. Do you want to elaborate on that at all?
  (Mr Thomson) I think the challenge for us in that is making sure that there is effective progression from the initial indication of interest and converting that into a valuable learning experience. I think that is where the Bite-Size Chunks initiative gives us ideas for the way forward.
  (Ms Cara) Adult learning is advertised in the giro cheque.

  179. You also gave us some interesting observations on the sort of banking analogy of opening Individual Learning Accounts in that too many adults do not use a bank account effectively and often those adults will be exactly the ones who have no formal qualifications and training, so you are suggesting that using that analogy of using bank accounts has actually put off the many people that the scheme was mostly aimed at?
  (Ms Cara) I cannot think of any way in which it would advantage that particular group as opposed to disadvantage them and I would also, I think, if I was looking at a new scheme, want to look at how far the opening of an Individual Learning Account was the beginning of a long-term process or whether or how far it was an attempt to get a contribution towards a single learning incident and I do not think we know the answer to that.

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