Lord Blunkett and the House of Commons Education Committee agree that individual learning accounts (ILAs) should be brought back. A Liberal Democrat amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was tabled in the House of Lords with the same objective, yet the Department for Education would rather be dragged over hot coals than countenance such a possibility.
Why the resistance when the same department is happy to get behind the principle of the individual exercising learner choice by using the Skills Bill to support the introduction of a Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) at level 4 and above? Like others, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) believes that the LLE introduction in 2025 should be accompanied by the restoration of ILAs for adult education at level 3 and below.
Weak arguments against
The arguments against a restoration have been in our opinion fairly feeble so far. The loudest one has been that the first attempt at ILAs ended in failure in 2001 and therefore we should not risk another. What went wrong 20 years ago does not draw on hindsight because sector leaders warned the then government in advance of the ILA launch that the lack of quality assurance controls around education providers offering accounts would end in disaster. These days we have a large quality control infrastructure for colleges and independent training providers which should prevent a repeat. Similarly there would be no danger of worthless qualifications being offered again because only approved ones could be accessed this time. Although not without controversy, the government has recently been down this road with its list of circa 400 approved level 3 qualifications available under the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Therefore a combination of registered providers and certified qualifications would mean that ILAs could be brought back without fear of another debacle.
The other flimsy argument against restoration is that the government could only implement it in non-devolved areas, leaving the metro mayors to decide whether they wanted to follow suit in their regions. Well yes, that’s the whole point of devolution – things can be different, but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong in either a devolved or a non-devolved area. Some mayoral combined authorities have for example adopted different approaches to managing their Adult Education Budget (AEB) allocations
ILAs needed for changing lifestyles
What we are not hearing is any considered argument for denying an extension of adult learner choice, especially in response to the significant changing life and work patterns over the past 20 years. ILAs are the flexible solution to a 21st century learning landscape which covers classroom learning, work based learning, full time, part time, remote (i.e. online) or blended learning according to an individual’s needs. Just like employers having full choice over the apprenticeships they offer, adult learners should be able to exercise choice and control over their lifelong learning according to their circumstances.
As we have seen with the digital Apprenticeship Service, the huge technological advances since 2021 will enable ILAs to be much more transformational whether it’s for the learner or the economy. Using an online system and personal apps would not only help improve accessibility but will also allow the Education and Skills Funding Agency to easily manage account activation and monitor spend on a real-time basis to track demand.
While we want to see an ILA system as a tool for rolling out the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and a free first level 3 entitlement, government alone should not necessarily shoulder the full responsibility to meet the total cost of investment required for all of the approved qualifications. Both employers and individual learners should also be able to top up accounts and a digital system can enable this easily.
Boosting skills training including retraining in key sectors
Another major advantage of a digital system for ILAs is that government can add more funding to accounts to address labour and skills shortages in key sectors. Right now, this could mean for example the state topping up accounts for trainee HGV drivers, adult social care workers and hospitality staff.
Last year, the ONS predicted that the jobs of some 1.5 million adults were at risk through automation and technological developments. An ILA could be used to create an entitlement to access funding to help people reskill where they are in a low skilled job or will be displaced and this could take the form of a targeted grant in the account.
To tackle low levels of adult numeracy and literacy, the AEB includes a full funding entitlement for English and maths study if a learner does not achieve a grade 4 at GCSE. This again could be another entitlement grant along with one for learning basic digital skills which could be added to an individual’s account to access if they are eligible.
Better value for money from adult education
It is difficult to sustain a case for increasing the Adult Education Budget as part of the 2021 Spending Review if the current supply-driven allocation system is generating significant underspends year after year. So to ensure in the Chancellor’s words that ‘every pound is well spent’, the government needs to replace it with ILAs which can increase demand at levels 2 and 3, thereby rectifying the mistake in the Skills for Jobs white paper of criminally downplaying the importance of learning at these levels.
Jane Hickie is chief executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers