Select Committee on Education and Skills Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Head-Line Communication (ILA 19)


  Most witnesses to the Select Committee represent the views and interests of training providers with a "physical" location. As a provider of quality Open Learning I am anxious to redress the balance.

  The greatest reported abuse of the ILA scheme is attributed to providers of books, CD-ROMs etc, and the Committee might understandably concluded that this type of training should be discounted in future ILA plans. Open Learning can be bad—I have seen some which is truly awful—but my company has the experience and track record to show that it can also be done well.

  Forty per cent of UK homes are now 'net-connected; good Open Learning is the only way to deliver consistently high quality training via computer to such large numbers, and the ILA scheme cannot simply ignore it. However, quality in distance learning is essential. Effective quality assessment is possible, and the techniques should be rigorously applied. (See later comments on quality).


  We would urge the Department to fully understand the nature of training accreditation before making it a condition for ILA support. An example might help. On payment of £3,500 any ECDL training can be "accredited" by the ECDL Foundation. In practice this means that someone will cross-check the narrative of the materials against the syllabus and confirm that every element of the curriculum receives a mention. But simple consumer protection laws already give that reassurance—if I claim my course covers 100 per cent of the curriculum when in fact it does not the Sale of Goods Act offers any consumer a simple legal redress. "Coverage" is not the issue for students; what they want is reassurance that after working through the training materials they will understand the subject matter sufficiently to be able to pass the exam. Yet on this the ECDL accreditation process is almost silent.

  Actually it's worse than this. The ECDL accreditation in the UK specifically excludes any accreditation of the training. To restate this: training accredited by the British Computer Society for ECDL has passed no scrutiny whatever; the accredited organisation has merely shown it can conduct examinations. Of course it's not just ECDL: I urge the Committee to recommend analysis of any accreditation scheme before accepting it as a criterion for ILA-funded training.

  I turn now to more general views as a Learning Provider to the ILA scheme. Several of the following comments were the subject of meetings and correspondence between myself and John Healey, and later with DfES staff in Sheffield in August-November 2001.


  I had three initial concerns:

    —  that the ILA scheme put me in direct competition with a government-sponsored body (the ILA welcome pack to students included a leaflet directing them to Learndirect).

    —  that ILA rules allowed anyone to call themselves a "Training Provider" and claim £200 in exchange for a cheap book or CD; quality accreditation, such as the very rigorous University for Industry accreditation system which we had passed, was ignored.

    —  that the few rules that existed were abused—students of other providers who should have been charged 20 per cent of course costs were actually given £5 for simply signing a form; when we complained the ILA Centre (ILAC) advised that payment of student contributions was at the provider's discretion.

  We had spent around £500,000 building a leading-edge training delivery system. Any hope of a return on that investment vanished when we saw competitors with no investment in the industry bribing potential customers to conspire with them to defraud the Department.


  In general we felt we were poorly served by the ILAC. Some illustrations might help.


  Our webpages offered a link to the ILA website. In June we discovered the link was redirecting people to the site of this competing Learning Provider. Although the problem was admitted, no-one could tell us why it was happening or when it would stop. So we had to have our webpages rewritten to stop them sending students to our competitor's website.

Lost applications

  The ILAC wrote to us explaining that they were experiencing a backlog of ILA applications. Several hundred of our students who made applications still hadn't received their forms back after more than eight weeks. Eventually I called the ILAC and was told that such applications over five weeks old should be deemed "lost"; students should reapply.

Incorrect forms

  The ILAC preferred learners to register via the website; but online applications generated an incorrect form (a student signing it would be committing perjury). We reported this to the ILAC in February 2001. The ILA centre's advice was that we should correct the error manually and return it—which meant the form was resubmitted for signature, causing further delays. We refused to use online applications until this simple programming error was resolved—which, at the time of the suspension of the system it had not been.

Rule of three

  This problem was summarised very succinctly by another provider: "it was always clear that the helpdesk guys had no idea on policy due to the varying replies. Any attempt to get something in writing from them was also blocked. So we always made very sure that we stuck with the most sensible and auditable solution of the three variations on every question answered."


  The ILA scheme meant all training (except that aimed purely at the business market) had to be ILA-fundable to survive; but to stay in business established, bona-fide trainers had to fight arrivistes whose only interests in training was its ability to earn them quick money for no effort.

  Although government quoted the "success" of the scheme in training millions heretofore disenfranchised by formal education, in practice many received no such real benefit. The fraud and the scandalous mis-selling had to be stopped, and I endorse John Healey's decision to halt the scheme without notice. Yet that decision had a profound effect on our business:—

    —  our core business serves people who have been considering a course of study for up to a year before committing themselves. ILA incentives distorted that natural flow, and with its sudden withdrawal we face a bleak year before the market restabilises.

    —  people who received bad materials will be convinced that online/distance learning is not worth the media it's printed on; it will be harder than before to persuade them otherwise.

    —  the mis-selling has created a perception that IT training in particular is "free". In fact, although a lot of packages are "cheap", good quality is as expensive as it ever was...

  So we watch and wait. Learndirect continues, with government backing, to promote IT training products (American, Irish and Scandinavian but not British) both to individuals who attend the government-promoted centres and to UK plc, via University for Industry's corporate marketing arm.

  It leaves us in a very difficult position. The new, "human-feel" training system we have developed in the UK at considerable expense, over many months, looks set to die through government-created market recession, and in the face of government-backed foreign competition.


  I might suggest that the Committee recommends appointing another administrator with a better grasp of database management systems and computer security than Capita appears to have . . . but that would be a glib proposal which I am sure many others will make.

  I understand the DfES has drafted a more rigorous code of practice for Learning Providers. This will certainly help ensure the integrity of the ILA scheme but the rules must be policed. The following mechanisms can help monitor the behaviour of Learning Providers:—

    —  The ILAC should send a statement direct to the student prior to funds release

    This will tell a student that a Learning Provider is about to access their ILA fund. If this accords with their expectation all well and good, but if it comes as a surprise they should have a mechanism to block the release of misappopriated funds before their release to the provider. Moreover a statement might be a good opportunity to invite students to assess (perhaps via a questionnaire) how closely the training provider observed the marketing code of practice . . .

    —  A "Hotline" for students who discover they have been exploited.

    Rapid response is the best way to stamp out malpractice in the field. A hotline can quickly generate the necessary intelligence, and help protect the credibility of the system in the minds of students. However it must be responsive; calls to the ILAC were felt to be a waste of time.

    —  A procedure for instances of malpractice

        It would be helpful if Learning Providers could give clear advice to frustrated students as to what form of redress they have if their funds have been misappropriated. We implemented our own scheme which we would like to have seen made universal—as it was we ended up training people for nothing.

    —  Speeding up of processing; speeding up rectification of fault reports

        Delay and errors in the processing of ILA applications causes confusion and plays into the hands of fraudsters. Reported faults in the system which go unfixed for months opens a door to abuse.

    —  Dynamic Quality Assessment of Learning Provision (ie feedback from students)

        The Department's attitude was to leave choice of provision firmly with the learner. Fine principle; but a person in need of training is least able to make an informed choice between alternative offerings. It would be helpful (and simple) to set up a "Which? report"-style learner review system whose findings were available for all to see. (I would be happy to accept the judgement of my students as to value and effectiveness over that of any assessment panel).


  In our view the ILA scheme should apply just three criteria to would-be training providers:—

Quality of Training

  The really intractable problem is training packaged for distance delivery. The dynamics of cognition developed remotely from the teacher are poorly understood. Much accreditation is meaningless, especially where it reflects a tendency to be impressed by the technology. (Summary information which appeared merely banal in print form seems to acquire a mystical property when displayed as hyperlinked webpages; however, a book is still a book)

  By common consent meaningful Quality Assessment of training is difficult, but it is possible. In a recently commissioned report into the NOF ICT Training Programme for teachers Head-Line Communication used a standard index of assessment to retrospectively quantify the quality of training offerings from two distance learning providers. It proved a valuable, coherent and relatively objective measure which might offer a useful benchmark for ILA-funded training provision. Alternatively, in the absence of something new, we would urge the DfES to consider using the University for Industry's established QA programme.

Provision of Student Support

  A learning provider should be able to demonstrate clear systems for offering assistance to students after they have started the course. This is far more of an issue for distance learning than it is for college-based training. Sending a manual (or a CD) and telling them to get on with it won't do. Students need various forms of support (including tutor support; peer support; technical support; pastoral support) which only a truly committed training organisation will understand and properly supply. An organisation who provides books or CDs but offers no backup is no more a "Learning Provider" than is my local branch of WH Smith...

Value for money

  The onus should be on the training provider to offer evidence of value by reference to pricing structures available to and tested in the public domain. For example, Reeltime College courses can be found in high street training centres where, on a course-by-course comparison, they achieve higher price points than our equivalent materials offered direct. Furthermore the Reeltime College offering is available for inspection in its entirety on the website, where all visitors are invited to purchase online at prices identical to the equivalent materials offered as ILA-funded training by direct marketing. These seem entirely reasonable assertions which ILA Training Providers selling £5 CDs for £250 cannot make.


  The triple criteria of Quality, Provision of Student Support and Value-for-money offer a complete assessment scheme on which a purchaser of training can base an effective buying decision. In my opinion, as a trainer of some 25 years' experience, everything else is just tinkering at the edges.

  I hope you find this helpful in your deliberations. If I can offer any further help please don't hesitate to contact me.

Jim Gatten

Technical Director, Head-Line Communication

January 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 May 2002