Examination of Witnesses (Questions 168
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
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
(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.
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.
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
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.