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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 10:43 GMT
Training grants: What went wrong
construction site
Ministers are keen to expand people's skills
The problems that have led to the suspension of Individual Learning Account grants in England and Northern Ireland are not the first to have hit skills training.

The bigger challenge is that the biggest users of the scheme were those already in education and training

Prof John Field
"It's an industry with a fringe which is a little grey," said Warwick University's professor of lifelong learning, John Field.

Problems went back to the system set up by the Industrial Training Act of 1964, which created a payroll levy managed by industry training boards for each of the major industry sectors.

Employers resented being told to spend money on training and argued that they should be free to make their own decisions on the subject.

That system was largely dismantled during the 1980s - although some sectors, notably construction, chose to keep the boards going.

French experience

Under a similar system in France dating back to 1971, employers had to demonstrate that they were spending money on training - and were not too worried about how it was spent, so a sponsored training market grew up which some people abused.

Prof John Field
John Field: "Abuses inevitable"
But there, the government was vigorous in its pursuit of malpractice and a number of people were jailed.

Because of official passion for the idea, over time employers and workers became much more concerned about the quality of training.

Consumers - the trainees - became more discerning about what was on offer and the system matured.

Prof Field said he would have expected a similar pattern in the UK with ILAs: The alleged abuses were serious - but probably short-term.

Local touch

They were an almost inevitable consequence of the decision to run ILAs at a national level through a commercial contractor.

"A national level organisation of the kind that the ILA Centre was really doesn't have people on the ground, so it can't negotiate local partnerships, it doesn't know who the training providers are."

Distinguishing the serious providers from the scoundrels would therefore be difficult.

He thinks the answer is to localise the scheme - probably by using the new local Learning and Skills councils.

This was essentially the route taken in Wales, where there have not been the same abuses and the ILA scheme is still operating.

Bigger worry

He stresses that the vast majority of training providers were genuine and were being hit by the suspension of the scheme.

But any revived version of it will have to tackle a more fundamental issue - that ILAs were not expanding the numbers of people broadening and renewing their skills, as the government had intended.

"The bigger challenge is that the biggest users of the scheme were those already in education and training," Prof Field said.

"Its impact on expanding lifelong learning was probably fairly marginal.

"That's what the research evidence shows. They haven't broken out of the charmed circle of those already in the club."

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