In a surprise announcement, Estelle Morris, has today announced that the flagship Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) programme is to be scrapped in England.
After being heavily trailed and piloted thoughout 1999, ILAs were launched nationally in 2000. The DfES now claims that nearly 2.5 million accounts have been opened by individual adult learners who typically receive a cash payment of up to 80% of the cost of approved training - and the payments can be worth up to £200.
The programme is to be suspended from 7 December 2001 in England. The separate ILA programmes operating in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are unaffected by this change in policy. No new accounts will be opened in England, although people already participating in learning programmes will be allowed to continue.
The DfES is claiming that the rapid take-up of the scheme has exceeded their expectations and that its success has contributed to this review. However, it is also clear that the Department suspects widespread fraud by some training providers and that this abuse of the system has contributed to the decision. Reports indicate that nearly 300 training providers are being investigated for making fraudulent ILA claims on behalf of individual learners for courses which either did not exist or were never delivered. The quality of some other training is also being scrutinised.
Morris is quoted as saying: ”We remain committed to a forward-looking policy of encouraging the widest possible participation in lifelong learning. Our commitment to enabling access to lifelong learning is cast-iron.”
TrainingZONE says: This is a major reversal of government policy in the promotion of lifelong learning and the reduction of barriers to engagement in further learning. The decision must be a considerable embarrassment to the Department in an area which has been extensively promoted within the overall LearnDirect strategy.
Whilst there can be no excuse for fraudulent abuse of public funds, serious questions must be asked about the audit procedures which were in operation and the scrutiny of courses by Learning Centres and others.
The ILA programme has had a dramatic uptake. But some of the early research previously reported by TrainingZONE indicated that it had had only limited success in targeted disadvantaged groups and widening access to learning, whilst much of the uptake had been be individuals and employers who would have supported learning anyway. There was never any evident long-term strategy for sustaining the programme, and after the initial offer of "one million accounts" was reached, there were always doubts about how long the Treasury would be prepared to fund this type of initiative.
Whilst a review is welcome, to both eradicate fraud and ensure that financial support is well targeted, the scrapping of the ILA policy blows a serious hole in the drive towards wider participation in learning. No replacement strategy has been developed. The impact on some training providers will be considerable and the decision is sure to cause consternation within some Learning Centres. Meanwhile those resident in Scotland and elsewhere will continue to be able to claim financial support thanks to devolved decision-making in these areas.
A replacement strategy is urgently needed.