The days when courses for computer professionals were priced out of most people's reach are gone, says Kate Hilpern

When Darren Bowling, 18, decided to do one of a new set of IT qualifications for computer professionals, he hoped it would help him gain employment. What he hadn't expected was for it to happen so fast. "Almost immediately after completing the course on ICT systems support, I was offered work as an IT consultant and as soon as I started the job, I realised why," he says. "The course was hard work but without the specialist knowledge and skills that I gained, I wouldn't have been able to do the job. With them, I could do it well."

What's more, the four new courses - Level 2 and 3 Certificates in software development and Level 2 and 3 Certificates in ICT systems support - are affordable. Steve Ladlow, a spokesman for the exam board running the qualifications, OCR, explains, "Our new courses, collectively entitled the iPRO suite, have been approved by the QCA and accredited to the National Qualifications Framework - which means they are eligible for public funding. For some people, they are even free."

In July, he says, the White Paper published by the Department for Education and Skills recognised the skills shortage in IT and the need for core vendor qualifications to become funded. "We'd been working with Microsoft, Cisco Systems and CompTIA to create the iPRO courses which met the Government's requirements and they were approved for funding that very month."

In sectors such as IT, the White Paper states, the certificates offered by companies to recognise proficiency in using their products are highly valued. "The best of those certificates should be recognised in the National Qualifications Framework," advises the report.

"This is a major breakthrough for courses incorporating units from global organisations such as Microsoft, which have traditionally been offered by private training companies that are expensive," says Ladlow. "This means that, for the first time, there is an industry-recognised qualification for IT professionals that a range of people can afford."

The biggest provider of the iPRO suite is further education colleges, but the aim is to introduce them eventually into sixth form colleges, as well. Classes are kept small so that students can get enough one-to-one attention. Level 2 courses involve around 240 learning hours, while level 3 involves around 450 hours. Students are also expected to do some work in their own time.

So who will take up the courses? According to OCR, there are three main groups of people. The first are individuals working for an IT company, including consultants and designers who want to update their skills. "The second group is those who are working in an IT role in an non-IT company," says Ladlow. "For example, a book retailer may have its own IT infrastructure and will have its own technical people to look after its networks. In many of these cases, these people aren't qualified and this gives them a chance not only to become qualified but to tighten up their skills. The third group of people is school leavers, unemployed people and career changers who want to get trained in IT."

Karen Robson, 31, took up the OCR Level 2 Certificate in Software Development simply to expand her IT skills. "I had become interested in learning more about what computers can do," she explains. "It doesn't have anything to do with my work, which is for social services, but I know that what I have learned is highly transferable and feel sure it will come in useful in my work at some point."

Rob Paine, director of the New Technology Institute in Lancashire and Cumbria, adds that someone working on the front desk in a hotel could benefit from an iPRO course. "Even small businesses such as hotels often have a computerised network, but it isn't cost efficient to employ someone specifically to look after it. To make sure the computers can talk to one another, an employee could gain from an iPRO course so that they can take responsibility for this area as part of their wider role," he says.

He expects employers to be as interested in the new iPRO suite as individuals. Shabir Aslam, the manager of the Centre of Vocational Excellence at the City of Sunderland College, where Karen Robson did her course, agrees: "After all, it's a lot cheaper for them than using private trainers. Another reason is that up until now, employers risked losing employees whom they had provided with IT training to bigger and better jobs. But because these courses are completed over a long period of time, employees are likely to stay more loyal and use what they are learning in their jobs during the training, thereby adapting their existing job."

Employers have not traditionally been keen to use further education colleges to train up staff in IT, admits Peter Barnes, a trainer in IT support at Nike. "This is because most courses involved day release and we can't spare our staff for a whole day a week. Even if we can, the member of staff's work commitments often mean they can't commit. But the new iPRO suite at the City of Sunderland College offers flexibility to suit company needs and in our case this means evening classes."

Nike is also impressed with how the content of the courses can be adapted to their needs. "What we are winding up with is a very well-organised and equipped course, meeting the standards that we've come to expect from external training agents, but with the benefit of it being a great deal cheaper," says Barnes.

Like all iPRO suite providers, Aslam is keen to accommodate employers even more in the future so that students learn only what is relevant to their specific needs. "It's not so good for employees, who may have to do the course in their own time," he admits. "But generally, they conclude it's worth it because they end up with a globally recognised industry qualification."

Terry Salt, the head of computing and IT at Barnfield College, where Darren Bowling did his course, agrees. "The key to iPRO is that it allows people to gain affordable qualifications without having to do unnecessary work. In the past, a student who wanted to do a Microsoft qualification, for example, would have been able to achieve that but in addition, would have had to do further work to complete a course that the Government had labelled as a national qualification. With iPRO, you can learn in a way that is relevant to you and get the qualification."

For Darren Bowling there was a further gain: being dyslexic, he thought he would struggle with IT, but because he studied at a college which is hot on adapting to learning difficulties, it was no struggle at all.