Will ministers dare to bring in another version of the ill-fated learning accounts scheme? Linda Blackburne reports

Imagine you're Dave, a disenchanted hospital porter. You left school at 16 with no qualifications and found yourself a steady job. But 15 years later you're still in the same job, and, worse still, there are no promotion prospects. What do you do? If Dave is in England working for the National Health Service, he can apply for a £150 grant to pay for a course of his choice. Similarly, a manual worker in Wales or Scotland can claim up to £200 for a college course.

But outside the English NHS, education officials south and east of the borders are treading carefully following the scandal that forced the Government to scrap its scheme for learning grants. The programme for individual learning accounts (ILAs) gave adults £150 to pep up their skills, but it was shut down in November 2001 following allegations of fraud among course providers. To date, the police have made 93 arrests and charges have been brought against 34 people. Six have been convicted and 21 are waiting to go to court.

The Government has long talked about replacing the ill-fated ILAs, and is piloting a scheme in 10 parts of the country. The pilot will be doubled to 20 areas this September, but so far no national roll-out is planned.

The scheme offers a mean-tested grant of up to £30 a week for adults studying full-time for their first five GCSEs or a Level 2 National Vocational Qualification, and young adults studying full-time for their first two A-levels or Level 3 NVQ. And in an attempt to avoid the dirty dealing of the past, the courses must be given by Government-approved providers and the payment is made weekly in arrears.

The White Paper 21st-Century Skills, published last July, stresses the Government's intention to replace the ILAs, not only because it wants adults to return to learning, but also because 29 per cent of the workforce do not have five GCSEs or more. For the jobless, that figure rises to 43 per cent.

The Government also plans to allow workers without qualifications to enrol on publicly funded college courses from 2005. The White Paper says: "More young people in England leave education or training by the age of 17 than in most other developed countries. The legacy of this... is that too many adults lack minimum levels of basic and employability skills, and are not interested in further learning. They often lack the necessary support to re-engage in learning and are the least likely group to receive training from employers."

But Government efforts to date are being pooh-poohed north of the border and closer to home by the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE). John Field, the deputy principal at Stirling University, has called the "hints and promises" in England and Northern Ireland "sweet nothings". Although he himself believes that ILAs are "exciting and imaginative", he fears that part of the problem in England is that the grants are basically vouchers, a concept inherited from the Conservative government and disliked by Labour supporters.

The new English scheme, he says, needs to be more focused - last time round, manual workers simply did not get the message. And Alastair Thomson, a policy officer for NIACE, has accused the English of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The new £30-a-week grant is meaner than the ILA's £150 because the new scheme is much narrower. Anybody could get an ILA, but now only adults studying full-time can get the new grant. That means the new learners have to be living at home with their parents or be supported by a partner.

Although many of the old ILAs were gobbled up by the middle classes, says Thomson, the new grant is nowhere near a match for the government Training Opportunities Programme grant of £45-a-week, 20 years ago.

Wales is priding itself on giving grants of up to £200 a year for courses for the unemployed without any GCSEs and of up to £100 for those in work. There is no requirement for full-time study, which means the grant can be taken by all adults of any age.

A similar scheme is underway in Scotland, though it's not as generous as its Welsh counterpart. All learners can claim up to £200 a year for courses focused initially on information computer technology. The scheme is expected to go national in April 2005.

In addition, Scottish learners earning less than £15,000 will be able to claim up to £200 a year for a wide variety of courses from this summer. The NHS scheme is aimed at healthcare assistants, porters, cleaners and office staff. The Department of Health is investing £180m over a three-year period in support of ILAs, adult literacy, numeracy and language skills.

The course must be work-related, but non-work related courses are also considered if they support genuine learning. Best of all, the £150 is not a one-off payment. NHS workers can apply for the grant as many times as they like.

Meanwhile, the DfES is also looking at the concept of unique learner numbers and skills passports. A unique learner number would track learners' achievements as they progress and create a record of attainment, but it would have to satisfy civil liberties groups if it is to win wide support.

Skills passports, which are already being used by the information technology and construction industries, are another possible route for the DfES. A skills passport holds a person's record of training and skills. Without it, he or she would not be able to work in the industry.

education@independent.co.uk

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