Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) (ILA 12)

  1.  The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education works to encourage more and different adults to engage in learning of all kinds. NIACE's functions include research, development and consultancy; advocacy to inform and influence public policy; information services and dissemination; campaigning for, and celebrating the achievements of, adult learners. Established in 1921, NIACE is an independent non-governmental organisation, a registered charity and company limited by guarantee. Its corporate and individual members come from all sectors concerned with adult learning: colleges; local authorities; universities; voluntary and community organisations; churches; broadcasters and unions. While receiving core grants from the DfES, National Assembly for Wales and through the 1988 Local Government Act, the majority of its income is earned through research, development and consultancy work—including contracts with the UK government, the EU and the national lottery.

  2.  NIACE welcomes the present government's investment in post-compulsory education and its aspirations to widen participation. While we have criticised the detail or balance of proposals at times, we have tried to provide advice and assistance to maximise the effectiveness of policies and resources. NIACE welcomed the introduction of ILAs as evidence of the government's commitment to adult learning but was sceptical that they were the best instrument through which to motivate individuals who have no prior history of participation to take up education and training. While acknowledging ILAs as a bold and innovative experiment, we found them unconvincing as a centrepiece of policy and saw their value as an interesting niche product. In particular, we were concerned:

    —  that the near-universal offer was an expensive way to widen participation because of the amount of deadweight;

    —  whether discounting was a long-term means of demonstrating the value of learning;

    —  that the banking metaphor at the heart of the ILA policy had anything to offer the hardest-to-reach learners. (More than two million adults do not use any mainstream financial services at all);

    —  that insufficient emphasis was given to linking individualised accounts to other measures such as guidance and collective "pooling" of accounts.

  3.  It would be a tragedy, however, if the problems which led to the initiative's closure were to result in any lessening of commitment to, and resourcing for, individually-driven adult learning, or if it led to some of the principles to which ILAs tried to give expression, being abandoned as too risky. It is crucial to remember that learners, individually and acting in groups, were not the cause of this policy failure and that they, and potential learners, are the real victims.

  4.  We believe that other initiatives currently receiving more modest levels of public support also show the value of the principles that ILAs sought to implement and have been rather more successful in reaching non-participants. Initiatives such as Adult Learners' Week and Bite-Size Courses have proved highly cost-effective in motivating non-participating adults to consider taking up learning and to engage in it with little financial risk. For example:

    —  The most recent evaluation of ILAs (January 2002) states that only 18 per cent of account redeemers had no qualifications and that 36 per cent already had a qualification equivalent to NVQ level 4 or above. Furthermore, 54 per cent of redeemers would have been able to pay for their course without the ILA.

    —  In contrast, just 18 per cent of callers to the Adult Learners' Week 2001 help line had qualifications above level 3 and 55 per cent of callers had no recent experience of learning. 52 per cent of respondents then went on to take up a course of study.

    —  The evaluation of Bite-Size Courses found that new learners constituted 17 per cent of those reached by the initiative but that of the 41 per cent who went on to take a subsequent course, 31 per cent were new learners.

  There is a strong implication here that any new form of ILAs would benefit from clear linkage to other measures to widen participation through stimulating demand.


  5.  We believe that future government initiatives should build upon the following three principles:

    —  Choice and Breadth

    Encouraging adults to value learning and to invest their own time and money in it is not helped by prescription or proscription. Allowing prospective learners to begin their journey where they want to start is crucial in motivating the least motivated. A wide range of opportunities, certificated and non-certificated, formal and informal intended for a variety of purposes whether directly vocational or not, is essential.

    —  Entitlements

    Allowing prospective learners to access resources ring-fenced for their learning reduces the perception of financial risk associated with participation. This can be an important motivational factor for new and less-confident learners. Entitlement is at the heart of the basic skills strategy and employee development schemes such as Ford EDAP have more than 10 years successful experience of this model in which the entitlement is supported by advice and guidance to allow informed choice.

    —  Putting Control of Resources in the Hands of Prospective Learners Rather than Providers

    At a time when ministers and officials will be cautious with new lifelong learning policy initiatives, it is important to remember that the ILA scheme was not brought down as a result of putting trust in learners.


  6.  We would urge Government to give special consideration to the following three issues:

    —  Quality Assurance

    The lack of quality assurance arrangements in the English ILA system was a surprising policy misjudgement that is even more shocking than weaknesses in administrative mechanisms. Any new policy should have clear and proportionate QA monitoring arrangements in place from the start. The arrangements in other parts of the UK suggest that this need not necessarily involve high levels of bureaucratic red tape or additional work for inspection bodies.

    —  Devolved or Centralised Administration?

    The centralised administration of accounts appears to have contributed to problems. Without commenting upon the national system we simply note that there appears to have been little or no evidence of misuse or abuse of ILAs when they were first piloted by Training and Enterprise Councils—and that while some pilots did not widen participation significantly, others showed evidence of effective work. Devolving administration to regional or local level may have many benefits although there will undoubtedly be boundary issues.

    —  Wide Offer or Targeting?

    A wide offer may be unnecessarily generous, ending up providing public support to individuals already convinced of the value of learning, who would have been willing and able to meet the costs of learning themselves. In addition, it may reinforce rather than change patterns of participation. We believe that the only case for having a wide offer would be if it were genuinely universal—covering initial higher education as well as further education (members may recall that the Learning Bank policy set out in the 1992 Commission for Social Justice report which did cover HE). A more tightly targeted system might prioritise either individuals (by level of prior attainment) or communities (prospective learners in rural areas are disadvantaged by lack of choice, for example) or both.


  7.  Among the many ways in which future policy could be strengthened, three priority areas are:

    —  Advice and Guidance

    In other parts of the UK (but not in England), ILAs could be used to purchase advice and guidance. This has the potential to result in more informed and effective choice. Integrating any new initiative with information, advice and guidance strategies should be an imperative.

    —  Focussing on Groups as well as Individuals

    A culture that respects and values lifelong learning will not be built simply by individualised programmes. Learning is, at its best, a social experience. Individuals are motivated, supported and taught by their families and peers in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. Some of the ILA pilots experimented with the pooling of accounts—an area which would merit further development. There is also evidence from other community-based lifelong learning policy initiatives that informed intermediaries can help encourage participation among groups of new learners.

    —  Reconsidering Discounts

    The course discounts, which were central to the failed national system of ILAs, did little to send a message that learning was of value. They simply risked distorting an already complex market for education and training in ways that were not helpful.

  8.  Overall, NIACE believes that the main choices facing the government for the future are to do with how, rather than whether, to expand the learning community. Doing this will require innovation, risk and a variety of policy instruments. The central lesson to be learned from the English ILA scheme is that policy ended up being driven by the technical mechanism. It lost sight of the need to ensure that different learners as well as more learners were engaged in learning and offered a high-quality experience.

  9.  Finally, it is worth juxtaposing the Departmental overspend of £62.9 million on ILAs with the figure of a £233 million underspend on the DfES lifelong learning objective reported by Estelle Morris in answer to a parliamentary question on 9 January 2002. NIACE's concern is that the system has yet to develop a speed and volume of response to make best use of publicly allocated funding. Where ILAs combined popularity and reach (or example in some work led by trade unions), their loss makes growing the learning society harder to achieve.

  10.  NIACE would be pleased to provide the Committee with further information about anything covered in this note or any aspect of lifelong learning policy. Please contact Alan Tuckett (Director) or Alastair Thomson (Policy & Development Officer).

National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE)

January 2002

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