Training vouchers were expected to sell well this Christmas, but so far interest is low

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The Independent Online

It may not be top of everyone's Christmas wish-list, but this year, for the first time, some people will receive a present with a difference training.

Since mid-October, nine further education colleges have been selling 50 vouchers that can be exchanged for adult education courses which, the Government hopes, will make an ideal festive gift.

Speaking at the launch of the scheme, skills minister David Lammy described the scheme as "a superb example of the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the FE sector". But the early signs are far from encouraging. Up until the end of last week, at least four of the pilot colleges had failed to sell a single voucher and others admitted that interest was low.

Many believe the minimum cost of a voucher is too high and that it would be better to offer them at 20 or 25. "We're wondering if 50 is too much to spend on one present," says a spokeswoman at York College.

The college has been advertising vouchers at its advice centre in York for the past five weeks and promotes the scheme through its website. "We've done what we can to publicise it," she says, "but we've had no take-up at all."

It is a similar story at Chichester College, which also failed to sell any vouchers before the end of November. "People say they think it's a good idea but they've not got around to buying any," says vice-principal Sarah Stannard.

The price of each voucher reflects the cost of adult learning, which has risen significantly during the past few years. Although some colleges offer short leisure courses for under 50, most would-be learners require closer to 100 for a one-term course, while the price of a typical 30-week class is even higher.

It is possible to enrol on a more expensive course and pay the difference, but all vouchers must be redeemed by June. One college points out that most adult classes start in September, with only a few beginning in January. "We don't think the timescale was very well thought out," says a spokeswoman.

But Warwickshire College, which had sold "less than five" vouchers prior to the start of this week, insists that it is fully behind the scheme and is about to launch a billboard advertising campaign in Leamington Spa.

The college designed special gift cards to complement the vouchers, which are also being publicised at stands in the town. A voucher would cover the price of classes in yoga, life drawing and piano for beginners. "It's a good way to introduce people to a course and give them encouragement to go out and do it," says marketing manager Kate Atwell.

Shavaun Glen, national marketing and communications manager at the Learning and Skills Council, says it is unfair to judge the success of the scheme at this stage. "It's not about the number of vouchers that are sold. It's about the principle behind it," she says.

With fees expected to cover a larger percentage of course costs than in the past, the LSC is keen to promote training as a personal investment. "We need to encourage more people to contribute towards the cost of learning," adds Glen. "This is an excellent way of getting people and their families involved."

Research commissioned by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to coincide with the voucher scheme suggests that people generally spend an average of 75 on gifts for close family members.

According to the ICM survey, a course voucher would be seen as the third most popular gift this Christmas (20 per cent) after clothes (31 per cent) and books (25 per cent), and well ahead of music (15 per cent) and toiletries (7 per cent).

Linda Siegle, joint chief executive of the Campaign for Learning, believes it will take time for the idea of learning as a gift to catch on. She agrees with colleges that the vouchers may be overpriced, but says the scheme should help to give people a taste for developing new skills.

With ministers promising to reintroduce some form of skills or learning account, gift vouchers may even be a sign of the future for adult education. "It is a unique way of getting people to pay for learning," says Siegle. "We think it's a great idea because we want to get money back into the hands of learners."