Bright scheme, big City

The Government's nursery vouchers are bedevilled by controversy. But a new voucher scheme - in the heart of the Square Mile - is working well and bringing education to adult learners. Lucy Ward reports
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In the big-money world of the City of London, scraps of paper worth pounds 5 are drops in a financial ocean. But, under an experimental project to lure the workers and residents of the Square Mile back to learning, the same scraps could buy life-changing skills in anything from pattern- cutting to computing to Cantonese.

The Corporation of London - the City's local authority - is breaking new ground in the UK with its adult education vouchers, available to all from stockbrokers to the unemployed. At a time when the Government's flagship nursery vouchers have come under fire even from the Tory-dominated education select committee, their grown-up equivalents are, according to the Corporation's chief education officer, David Smith, "the workable face of voucherdom".

The first of the City's two voucher schemes, launched three years ago and growing steadily in popularity, is aimed at the 4,000 residents scattered throughout the Square Mile, from the bijou apartments of the Barbican to the impoverished estates around Brick Lane.

This academic year, 400 adults have taken up the chance of a voucher, worth pounds 40 to those in work and pounds 125 to pensioners and the unemployed, with an extra pounds 150 available for basic skills education such as literacy, numeracy or parenting. Paper tokens each worth pounds 5 can be exchanged for adult education classes in more than 70 colleges and other institutions in and around the Square Mile, which then claim the cash back from the Corporation.

So far, vouchers have paid for courses in languages, literacy and information technology, but - thanks to the authority's broad interpretation of learning - have also gone towards membership fees for a choir, day-schools linked to Barbican concerts and, in one case, a Sotheby's course in fine wine.

For the Corporation, which lays on almost no adult education provision of its own, the scheme offered an ideal alternative, says David Smith. "With vouchers, residents are free to go and learn anywhere they like. We didn't want to leap in and lay on courses ourselves only to find they weren't what people wanted. The aim was to get the maximum from the resources we had."

Building on the success of the residents' scheme, the authority last year launched a second version directed at City workers. The pilot project offered 100 employees vouchers worth up to a maximum of pounds 200 to fund one- third of the cost of any education course not directly related to work.

The rest of the fee was divided equally between employee and employer, creating a three-way funding split along the lines of the individual learning accounts under consideration by Labour as part of its lifelong-learning policy.

Early volunteers for the scheme ranged from managers and administrators to clerical and manual staff, working in trades from law and finance to publishing and architecture. Language and business courses proved most popular, but more than one in 10 opted for more recreational pursuits.

Workers in the Square Mile, slaving daily over their computers, are as needy as any of a break from the grindstone, says David Smith.

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. You can't just go into the City and learn what you need for your job - you need to get a life. We have to rekindle the notion that learning is interesting and a good thing which brings you into contact with people."

Sceptics might remark that, while learning may be good for busy City folk, the taxpayer should not have to provide it for whizzkids receiving five-figure annual bonuses. Mr Smith, however, makes no apologies. The Corporation of London, he points out, collects pounds 900m annually in business rates, and firms have a right to expect some investment in their staff in return.

The voucher scheme is specifically designed not to subsidise or replace in-house training, although employers should see a benefit in the form of workers' personal development. After a period of widespread "downsizing", movement between jobs has declined in the City and firms need to ensure that their remaining workers do not feel trapped and unchallenged, Mr Smith suggests. "This is not airy-fairy and goody-goody. There is a genuine, bottom-line financial application to it."

While the architects of the voucher scheme might be expected to sing its praises, the pilot also won widespread support among employers invited to take part. Firms surveyed as part of an independent report on the two voucher projects by the Department of Education Studies at Surrey University praised the concept as a "good deal", simple to use and a useful means of investing in staff.

The City law firm Theodore Goddard proved one of the keenest converts to vouchers, despite having a substantial in-house training programme for its 400 employees. It spent just under pounds 1,500 on contributions to courses for nine staff, who studied subjects from computing to Italian.

The scheme suits today's uncertain times, according to training manager Sally Sanderson. "The world is changing very fast and that means most people actually feel very insecure. If you take more control by learning more and keeping your skills up to date then you feel more secure."

The Surrey University study, backed by the European Commission, loftily dubbed the voucher projects "a significant step in the creation of a learning culture in the City of London".

The real test of the City schemes, however, will be their application outside the Square Mile. They were devised, after all, as a unique answer to a unique set of circumstances by an education authority with only one school to busy itself with.

David Smith, already explaining the concept at conferences countrywide, is confident that it could be used in far larger authorities. "It's a perfect mechanism for targeting - perhaps to boost learning in a particular ward of a borough or area of a county. It's just a question of your own local circumstances"

A breakthrough in expression

Sculptor Antoni Przechrzta left his native Poland for London 12 years ago in search of greater artistic freedom. After settling on an estate on the very eastern edge of the City, he began to fulfil his creative ambitions, but grew frustrated that his expression in English lagged behind.

Wherever he went, displaying his work or giving lectures on post-modern art, his heavy accent always prompted the same first question: "Where do you come from?"

The Adult Education Voucher Scheme for residents of the Square Mile offered the struggling artist the opportunity he needed to give his language skills a boost. Living on the Mansell Street estate on the very edge of the City, his address fell just within the Corporation's boundaries, though neighbours across the street come under another authority.

Antoni's voucher, worth pounds 125, was just enough to cover the cost of a year's course in English pronunciation at London's City Lit, where he perfected sounds including the tricky English "th" and watered down his strong Polish "r". With his new-found enthusiasm for learning, Antoni, 37, plans to apply for another voucher this year to take courses in voice production and greater English proficiency.

The voucher scheme, he says in immaculate English, is "an excellent idea. It gives people the chance to develop.

"I had always wanted to take a pronunciation class, but somehow I never came across one. The scheme gave me information about the course, the money to do it and the inspiration"

Just in time for the wedding

When City solicitor Nick Cline met his Hong Kong-born fiancee Sukyee Law they had no trouble communicating, but talking to her Cantonese- speaking family on visits to the colony was a different matter. "I would sit there thinking they were chatting about the weather, only to find they had decided to go out to a restaurant," he says.

To leap the language barrier, Nick decided to learn Cantonese himself, but his "admittedly cheeky" request for help with course fees was turned down by his firm. A compromise emerged in the form of the new City Workers' Study Voucher Scheme, which splits the cost of study equally between employee, employer and the Corporation of London.

Nick, 26, enrolled for weekly lessons a year ago at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, paying just a third of the pounds 580 fee while the Corporation and his firm Theodore Goddard picked up the balance.

Now, with just three weeks to go before his wedding, he has mastered enough of the language's complex pattern of tones to understand family conversations and even try out his own phrases with Sukyee's grandmother.

The vouchers provided the extra spur he needed to make time for the course, Nick found. "Before you start a language, you wonder whether you'll be any good at it, and whether you should pay out. The vouchers give you a financial incentive, but also encourage you to make a good job of it because you don't want to let your firm down."

Theodore Goddard, one of the City firms keenest to take up the voucher scheme, contributed to study fees for eight other staff. Maintenance worker Jerome Duplessis, 54, a former tailor, paid pounds 65 towards a nine-week course in pattern-cutting at the London College of Fashion to update rusty skills, and now makes clothes for his family and even alters the occasional hem for work colleagues.

"I was really impressed that the firm was prepared to spend money on me for a course that will not even benefit them directly," he says. "It's a fine idea, particularly for younger people, to give them alternative skills in case they lose their job, as well as giving them enthusiasm for learning"