Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 144 - 159)




  144. I have to state that Bert Clough and I are old friends. We worked together when I was a shadow education spokesperson for the Labour Party and he has worked for the Labour Party. Greetings to all of you, but Bert and I know each other extremely well. I welcome James Rees, Liz Smith and Bert Clough and say how grateful we are to you for giving us your time. I do not want all of you to make an opening statement, but, Liz, perhaps you would like to start.

  (Ms Smith) I have a few points to make to put our role in context. Unions were particularly interested in ILAs because of the way in which potentially they empower the individual learner, worker, or employee. We saw the potential for them to play an important part in our work, which is now widespread, to see the union role bringing more people into learning and skills and widening participation, particularly in the workplace. We thought that ILAs would help in terms of making that learning affordable. As John Rodgers indicated, we did not see the ILAs as a stand-alone policy. We did not see ourselves as being salespeople for ILAs. We did not go out to get volumes. We wanted to see them assist unions and employers to meet objectives and we would encourage them to use them. One particular point is that they played an important role, as found in a recent survey, in helping people who had a basic skills problem, for which you do not need ILAs, to have, if you like, an exit strategy into further learning. That is very important to us, given the number of people in the workforce with basic skills needs. We found that where people used ILAs, for example for ICT, it was a good mechanism for picking up basic skills issues and assisting them to address those issues. The key things that unions did overall differs in different contexts, and that depends on the union representative at the workplace, particularly union learning representatives. Typically, they would assist people at work to secure, and if they wanted, to fill in the ILA application form. They would help them in that practical way. They would be trained to do this. They would give them some initial—I stress the word "initial"—information and advice about how they might use their ILA. Usually that would be based on a learning needs survey that would be done at the workplace that would identify what people wanted to learn, what they thought their strengths were and so on. What is important is that they would work with partner providers with whom they may already have links or whom they would identify to further the learning programme to ensure that there was value for money and to ensure that there was some kind of quality assurance and feedback. They would help with signposting to learning. More particularly—and this was so with some of the TEC pilots—where possible they would work with careers services to get some professional advice or guidance at that stage. In the early pilots, particularly in the south-west and the north-west, all the learners, all the employees who opened an ILA and used them had a professional advice and guidance session, not from the supplier, but from an objective source. At first, they were a bit reluctant, but in terms of feedback, 100 per cent of them said that that was absolutely vital to how they progressed. The final point is that usually that work was part of a learning partnership at work.

  145. I do not want to show any partiality here, but it seems to me that that is exactly the role that should have gone with the Individual Learning Account and which seemed to be the missing link when things went wrong. As you were carrying out all that work, as the ILA story unravelled, did you pick up that things were going wrong elsewhere? I do not mean in your own sphere. Did you pick up the fact that things were not as they should have been?
  (Ms Smith) Not from any feedback ourselves. The only evidence that I picked up was what I read in the press and heard on the grapevine. It was very much part of a wider piece of work. We were concerned that there was not sufficient information, advice and guidance built into the system as a whole, but we were not really picking up those things.

  146. I shall ask James Rees to comment on the same point.
  (Mr Rees) The way in which Usdaw was involved was working closely with the employers. We tried to develop ways of working jointly with employers so that we could encourage staff to return to learning. Most Usdaw members come from the difficult groups that were talked about in the earlier evidence, those hard to reach groups. As a consequence, our learning reps had a difficult job of work sometimes in encouraging people to return to learning. They were also mostly people who were unlikely to get much in the way of development for their job-related training or learning. If someone drives a forklift truck, there is only a certain amount of job-related training they are going to get. So we encouraged people to engage in career or personal development learning. The numbers which came through us were quite high. I think they are in our written evidence, but in total about 4,790 Usdaw members, or more than 4,790 are the ones that made the track through the whole scheme, and about 2,500 since April of last year. What we did pick up, and this was not the fraud side of things, what we did pick up was that increasingly there seemed to be problems towards the summer period with Capita. They were taking a long time to return information. People were applying for Individual Learning Accounts and they were not getting them back in the time that they wanted to get them back, and our learning reps were having to manage a lot of difficult situations arising from that, particularly, as with the regulation, people were meant to have their learning account number before they started their training and that then produced a lot of problems with the training set-up when the Capita agency had not responded. It was not the fraud side of things, but they were having a problem over the slowness with which things were getting processed.
  (Mr Clough) I have nothing really to add to what Liz Smith or what James Rees have said. Ironically, in the early discussions with the TEC pilots, when the DfES used to consult us, there was lots of discussion about how users might misuse the pilots, et cetera, and very little about providers. However, I do not think that there is any evidence of the former, so basically issues concerning learner providers were never really on the radar screen when the actual TEC pilots were developed.

  147. Did you say that the DfES used to consult you, leading to the suggestion that they do not any longer?
  (Mr Clough) They certainly do and it is difficult often to have the capacity to get fully involved in every consultation. No, they have certainly involved us in all the stages.

  Chairman: But you do not want to spring to the defence of plumbing and feng shui? I was rather hoping that someone would stand up for those two subjects to be on the course? Plumbing is, but feng shui is very useful.

Valerie Davey

  148. Like the Chair, it does seem to me that your advice given independently to new learners was a crucial element in the work you were doing and something which I hope the Government will take note of, but before we move on, you intimated, Liz, that the unions welcomed this initiative. Can you tell me in a bit more detail why, as compared to the older system that we got used to where you got tax relief if you were going on to courses? Why was this initiative of value, did you think, potentially?
  (Ms Smith) We thought, because of the nature of the relationship between the union rep at work and the individual, that the fact that it was something which would interest, inspire the individual, but that that individual would benefit from some support and help from a trusted person, in this case the union rep, that that combination would actually achieve some of what I think the Government was trying to achieve which was making learning something that individuals really, if you like, had a stake in. We could see the potential of that and because of that particular role of the union rep as a trusted friend, if you like, we could see if we could put securities and support and progression around it and that it was perhaps something that was easier for people to understand and feel a close identification with than previous systems. We did not think it was the answer, by the way, and we did not necessarily think it was perfect. We saw potential in it and I think actually that we were right because union reps really did feel quite comfortable working with the ILA approach.

  149. So potentially a small payment up-front was better than a discount in tax later?
  (Mr Clough) I think basically vocational tax relief can be a very blunt instrument. Whether it would give as much incentive to those on low incomes is a matter for conjecture. Therefore, I do think that probably the ILA system was potentially able to have an incentive for those lower-income groups than a tax break.

  150. Could I come back and lastly ask whether as well as supporting the individuals, you were actually also acting as a quality control for the providers? Is that another role which, perhaps unspoken, you were also providing as trade union education officers, learning reps?
  (Ms Smith) I think very much so. James might want to give an example. We encouraged unions to make partnerships with providers. We already have a network of some 80 FE colleges that we have links with through our own programmes and we are extending that to providers where there is particularly a good record on basic skills, for example, the BSA quality mark or high inspection grades, so we encouraged them to make partnerships with either known providers or to extend those and we gave them guidance, very, very broad guidance about the sorts of things that you should look for. For example, if a provider said, "Well, we can only do such and such a thing ten miles away from your workplace from seven to nine every night", you actually can say, "Well, no, we would like it at work and we would like it at the end of the shift". We also obviously encouraged them to make sure that courses were evaluated and that if they had problems to feed them back to us, so we have done a lot of work on that.
  (Mr Rees) As I said, we were interested in re-engaging non-learners in learning and, through that, working with the employer to try and help develop a learning culture within the workplace, so many of the people we were involved with in learning were not involved in what would be training which related to the job they were on, but it would be more of a broader personal career development-type training. We early on identified that the main barriers we had to overcome with the group we were working with was accessibility, making the learning accessible and making the style of learning accessible in terms of where it took place, which was normally the workplace, making it accessible in terms of when it took place so that it fitted around people's shift patterns and working hours. So there were issues about accessibility and there were issues about confidence. Most of the learners that we were dealing with, most of our members, were not confident about returning to learning and we, through the learning reps' work, had to boost their confidence. The third issue was affordability. Most of our people are on low or relatively low earnings and we had to deal with issues of affordability and that is an ongoing problem for us before, during and post ILAs, whatever situation emerges. We knew fairly early on that there were those three key barriers which we would have to address. The role of the ILA then slotted neatly into helping us resolve one of those barriers. What would tend to happen would be that we would establish some kind of local site-level partnership committee with the employer and we managed to engage companies like Tesco's, Littlewoods, Sainsbury's, Argos, and at those local committees there would be union reps, learning reps, and local site managers or chain managers or personnel managers. We would have some kind of tendering process more or less sophisticated with local providers so that we could ensure quality providers and that process has involved issues relating to the provision of advice and guidance, issues relating to when and the flexibility delivery, and the appropriateness of the teaching methods, et cetera. It also involved talking about negotiating down the price, so the ILAs helped very much, but it was not the only tool in the toolbox to try and make the learning affordable.

Mr Simmonds

  151. One of the main failures of the ILAs from the educational perspective was the lack of success in targeting those without any qualifications at all. You cross a broad range and will have quite a lot of people in that category. Do you consider that you failed in your task to bring them in and, if not, why not?
  (Ms Smith) I do not think we did fail in that sense. A recent survey that we did, and I hasten to say that it is not a scientific survey, that is not our role, indicated that 80 per cent of the learners that had used ILAs through unions came from what we would see as being the true target groups. Obviously that was the lower paid, the lower skilled through to Level 2. They were also in some of the groups, hard-to-reach small companies, a lot of freelance workers often in the entertainment industries, et cetera, so that was 80 per cent of the total and we do not know that the other 20 per cent was outside those groups, but we do know that actually the unions who were least likely to have engaged in ILAs were those that had higher-level, higher-qualified staff. We encouraged targeting throughout and that was a key thing and we think we did quite well on that actually.
  (Mr Rees) In Usdaw's case, in targeting the workplace we targeted exactly that group. We did not do a scientific survey again, but our anecdotal evidence is that the vast majority of people were people who were pickers, packers, stacka-truck drivers, check-out operators, shelf fillers, those groups of people. We engaged almost entirely, our 4,700 plus, would be made up of those groups. Some of those groups may already have had some Level 2-plus experience. Often we will get someone who has done maybe a Level 2 NVQ some time ago, which may not have been of the highest standard and they have come to us and their writing skills may be poor and they maybe end up on a basic skills writing course, so not everybody we engage had no previous learning skills in Usdaw's case, but the vast majority are Level 2 and beyond.

  152. I find that answer very helpful, so thank you for that. Obviously I think we would all agree that any successor scheme should be more targeted to the individuals that we are actually talking about and I wondered in a successor scheme what changes and differences you would like to see to enable better, more appropriate targeting of the groups we are discussing.
  (Mr Clough) I think we agree on that, Mr Simmonds. I think that the problem that we have got is that there would have to be a balance between a universal scheme and a targeted approach. We do not want to find that ILAs are, if you like, a residual scheme for those with no or low qualifications. I certainly agree with what people have said, and Mr Rodger made the point, that there needs to be much more focused targeting of these groups and not necessarily on those just with low qualifications, but those that might have craft qualifications many years ago. This might be in the printing industry and they might want to have an upskilling, and Quark Express is a very good example, and, therefore, they are vulnerable to unemployment and those people should also be targeted, so marketing is very important and there must be more precise marketing. I think, as people have said, the use of advice and guidance, professionals as well as front-line advice intermediaries, like unions, are important in this. The other big issue is of course with the discount system. Did that actually act against targeting in a way? If you go back to the TEC system, some of those TEC pilots, because they were TEC pilots, could very much target and some of those were very targeted on the under-skilled, for instance. So we would have to look or I think the Government needs to look at the Mark II as to what effects this universal discount did have on targeting and whether you could have a discount system which had built-in targeting. The policy problem seems to have been sort of whether you target individuals or actually target types of courses and a discount system was very much about targeting courses through financial incentives at a differential rate, so I think that has to be sorted out. I do think that there is a very important lesson to be learned and that is that the marketing has got to be very, very directed, although I think it is essential that these ILAs are universal because the whole point about it is that they are supposed to be generators of lifelong learning.

  Chairman: In terms of success, it would be nice if the TUC could provide us with what percentage of trade union members in each union actually took up ILAs and we could see who has done well and who has done less well and that could act as a spur.

Mr Pollard

  153. I am very encouraged by what has actually been said. Could I ask you how the employers view ILAs and what your relationship with them was and what their relationship with their individual learners was? Did they encourage, were they helpful and so on?
  (Ms Smith) I think, generally speaking, where there was a good working relationship between the union rep and the employer, there was a very useful dialogue about ILAs and how they could meet the objectives of individuals and how the employer would inevitably benefit. Union reps were very keen to avoid ILAs being used to substitute for the right investment, if you like, by the employer, for example, in job-related training. They were very keen to ensure that. They were also keen to encourage employers to contribute, for example, in that if after the initial ILA had been used, the individual had put in their £25, then the employer would be able to provide some financial support too. There was a whole range of things that were discussed and agreements made around that. We did see them, I think, as a very justifiable way of levering in employer support and encouraging partnerships between employers and the unions. There were examples. For example, sometimes the employer would say, "Well, to do this particular job, somebody needs a certain number of units of a particular NVQ, but we don't think they need the full NVQ", and in that situation the union might judge, and the individual might judge that actually using the ILA to get some additional units might be very helpful to them in their own career, so in that sense there was a grey area, but they actually helped, I think, forge employer-union partnerships and dialogue.
  (Mr Rees) Usually once we got the message across that it was understood what the roles of ILAs were, the employer was very enthusiastic in that we were taking learning into the workplace, we were helping what the employer wanted which was to develop a learning culture within the workplace or a learning environment within the workplace. The employers that we dealt with, we managed to persuade them that if some learning that was not necessarily job-related took place, if we engaged the people in that together, they would then be more receptive to change in the workplace and any change which might be associated with preparing people for change. We did have arguments about recreation and leisure because some employers were not so keen on going down the feng shui route. There was one particular incident where-flower-arranging came up as an issue and we advised the individual to apply for an ILA, She was turned down because flower arranging did not take placein her workplace. It turned out that two individuals worked part-time for a different employer and we were able to advise them to re-apply because the different employer was a florist and they wanted to set up in practice as florists, so this came about through our process. There was wide range of learning issues involving people and generally employers were positive about that once they understood that it helped make learning affordable for people.

Jeff Ennis

  154. Have you been consulted by the DfES about how things were and how things might be in the future?
  (Mr Clough) Apparently the DfES has contracted with the LSC to do some work on actually developing the Mark II. A discussion has been held between some of the local Learning Skills Council people and ourselves because we are regarded as a sort of stakeholder in this, but all I can say is that there has just been one meeting and we look forward to further meetings to discuss how the Mark II is going basically to happen, but as yet there has only been some preliminary discussion.
  (Ms Smith) But there will be a consultative meeting that the DfES will hold with unions specifically to get our views.


  155. Is there a date for that?
  (Ms Smith) It is the end of February/early March.

  156. Do you not think the Department is dragging its feet on this? Is it not being rather slow given the situation that 70 learners and providers are in?
  (Mr Clough) I think we would like to have some sort of paper saying what the sort of possible options should be fairly early on. I think Ministers have said that they would like to have some form of announcement of some sort of scheme before Easter and certainly I think there is some way to travel between now and an announcement of the scheme.

Mr Baron

  157. In trying to learn lessons for the future, we have talked about greater targeting, et cetera, but it does seem that a common criticism in regard to the whole ILA initiative is that nobody was focusing on the providers themselves because, as you know, what spoilt this, what we think is an excellent initiative, is a minority of unscrupulous providers trying to exploit the system. To ask a specific question of Usdaw, you were a trusted intermediary, but what did that actually involve? Nobody seemed to be focusing on other providers. Did that role as trusted intermediary enable you to scrutinise providers or was there a mechanism in place to make sure that these providers were kosher?
  (Mr Rees) The way it worked for us was that if we were developing learning that was delivered on-site or near-site, the group at site level, which would be learning reps and representatives of the company's training department, would select a provider to use and that provider would then be given facilities on or near the premises, or it would be able to make use of facilities on or near the premises to deliver the learning. In that sense we were not just responding or the learning reps were not just responding to a flier in the letter box, but there was actually discussion asking what the provider could deliver, and the learning reps were then involved in providing feedback because often some people found it a bit heavy-going, so the learning reps were going round talking to people, saying, "What did you think of the learning? Were you getting a lot?" and encouraging people to be involved. The trusted intermediary role is a peer group supporter role, so it is an ongoing process of seeing how the learning is going and that sort of quality check.

  158. So there is nothing in your role selectively which would enable you to scrutinise providers themselves?
  (Mr Rees) Only the providers we were working with and we did that by selecting good providers. One of our points was to select high-quality providers to deliver to our people. With those providers that we selected, but we were more or less happy that none of them was involved in fraud anyway.

  159. So, in other words, what you are saying is that providers that you selected, actually hardly any, if any, were found to be fraudulent or unscrupulous?
  (Mr Rees) I know of no provider that we selected that was fraudulent or unscrupulous.

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