Helpline proves unhelpful

September 3, 1999

The 750,000 potential students who have called the government's Learning Direct telephone helpline have been given "out of date or incomplete" information, college leaders have warned.

As little as a quarter of the available courses at some colleges are listed in the Learning Direct database, the Association of Colleges has discovered. The warning comes in the wake of a government-commissioned report that revealed that more than half of callers to the lifelong learning information line do not get through first time.

The findings mean that thousands of potential learners could have been deterred or misdirected by the helpline, run by the University for Industry, the government's flagship lifelong learning project.

The AoC has warned its members that "much of the information on the database regarding colleges' courses is either out of date or incomplete". The AoC'S UfI Action Group discovered the problems after its member colleges visited a Learning Direct call centre in Manchester. "The colleges found that less than half of their programmes were listed and, in some cases, less than a quarter."

The AoC has told its members to contact the database managers,the National Training Information Support, as a matter of urgency, to enable it to update its information. "Do not miss this opportunity," the AoC warned.

Garish Dent, who runs Learning Direct, said: "If the data were as bad as they'eve suggested then I'd be very worried, but I do not think that is the case. We have got a database of 600,000 learning opportunities, which we estimate is about 95 per cent of all opportunities available."

A UfI spokesman said the AoC's findings were based on just a "small group" of colleges and said that the UfI was plotting with 30 colleges new software that automatically updates records as soon as colleges advertise new courses.

A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment last month found that Learning Direct - 0800 100 900 - had attracted more than 750,000 calls since the line opened in February 1998. While more than 90 per cent of callers said the quality of service was "good", the report's authors said getting through was "a lottery".

Each month, the report says, on average, only 46 per cent of callers get through first time. About one in three failed to get the information they needed and one in four gave up after consistently failing to get through.

But ministers welcomed the findings. "The helpline plays a vital role in getting more people to take up learning. The report found that 57 per cent of callers started a course after calling."

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