Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Usdaw (ILA 23)

The Usdaw Experience of Individual Learning Accounts

  1.  Usdaw has 310,000 members, 64 per cent of whom are women, 100,000 are part-time, and 5 per cent are black an/or ethnic minority. The vast majority of Usdaw members are on the wrong side of the learning and the digital divide. Most are women "returners", part-time workers or manual workers, who usually work in jobs that do not attract development from their employers. They tend to be below level 2 in qualification level, and believe their formal learning days are over.

  2.  Like other trade unions Usdaw has been campaigning to re-engage our members in adult learning. To succeed in this we need to achieve three core things:

    —  Make learning accessible—Learning needs to be delivered to suit peoples busy working lives. This means making its accessible in its style of teaching, at convenient times that fit around work and family commitments and at convenient venues—usually in or near the workplace.

    —  Make potential learners confident—key to raising confidence is to use the "community" that is the workplace to encourage returning to learning. Trained learning reps, peer group supporters, are invaluable for this.

    —  Make learning affordable—For low and lower paid workers the cost of learning is an immense barrier. Individual Learning Accounts were the main way to deal with this.

  3.  To engage our members in learning we have developed a method that involves working in partnership with employers and providers to deliver learning in or near the workplace, at times to suit different shift patterns. Often this learning takes place in people's own time. A key component of this approach is to make learning affordable, and to have a network of learning reps who will encourage potential learners and help them with their applications for financial support.

    —  Usdaw is working in Partnership on one or more sites with Littlewoods, Argos/Reality, Sainsburys, Tesco, Kays, Redcats UK, Wincanton, Heinz and Ethal Austins among others.

    —  In a Call Center in Bolton with 700 staff, learning reps succeeded in encouraging 497 people to apply for an ILA.

    —  To date we estimate Usdaw Learning Reps encouraged more than 4,790 people to take out ILAs of whom more than 2,561 people opened an account since April 2001.

  4.  Learning reps have succeeded in engaging learners in a wide variety of subjects for personal and career development including CLAIT and ECDL computer courses, Basic skills, Spanish, and Signing.

    —  In Argos/Reality in Wigan, 12.6 per cent of the 1,100 staff re-engaged in leaning in the first year of the partnership attending courses in a variety of subjects in an on-site Learning Center.

  5.  Unless Learning can be made affordable for the low and the lower paid, there is little chance of narrowing the learning and the digital divide. The replacement for the ILA is the key to this.


  6.  ILAs were set up with two aims: 1. To encourage non-learners to return to learning by making learning affordable; and, 2. To stimulate a market for learning and encourage new providers to establish themselves. These twin aims resulted in a system that ways easy to access for the learner, but also for the fraudster and the poor quality provider.

  7.  It is widely agreed that the ILAs were a great success at helping adults return to learning. This is not only confirmed by Usdaw's experience but also by a number of surveys. One reason for this was because, at least in its initial stages, it was relatively burocrat free. This was gradually being undermined by security checks introduced to the application process.

  8.  The lack of quality control over both providers and the learning meant that fraudsters and poor quality providers were bound to take advantage of the market.

  9.  A further issue concerns the size of the "deadweight" of already existing adult learners who used ILAs.


  10.  The key feature of the new system should be to place the emphasis on making learning affordable for the learner rather than being a vehicle for stimulating an unregulated learning market.

  11.  Consequently another key feature of the new system should be that the ILA is as easy as possible for the learner to access.

  12.  To regulate the market, there should be some quality threshold that should be established before a provider can be registered. This would protect the good providers from being undermined by the poor and the criminal providers, and the public purse from fraud.

  13.  As well as a quality check on the provider, there should be a quality check on the learning that takes place. There could be an expectation that the ILA user would achieve a qualification. Where a provider did not achieve a certain percentage of learners with qualifications, an inspection could be triggered. If there were satisfactory explanations (because of the nature of the learners, for example) then the provider would remain on the register. If not, they would be removed from the register.

  14.  One of the advantages of the early versions of the ILA was that it could be used for all learning except "recreation and leisure". If a new ILA was restricted to learning at level two and below, it may be possible to deal with the issue of "deadweight" and return to the original broad ILA.

  15.  A further possibility would be to explore the idea of pooling ILAs to form a Learning Account. It may be possible to encourage employers to contribute to a collective account and so lever in additional funding.

Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw)

January 2002

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