Smart card for learning

May 30, 1997

IT IS good to hear that Sir Ron Dearing is looking towards individual learning accounts (THES, May 23). It would however be a grave mistake to have a separate system of accounts based only on higher education.

There is a golden opportunity for the Government to commit to a comprehensive overall infrastructure of individual accounts which will support lifetime learning for all ages and levels. The proposed HE accounts, along with new Labour's promised one million accounts for adults, could be set into this general framework.

Ad hoc schemes can come and go and serve only their particular purpose. But an overall system offers the headroom for large numbers of fruitful and diverse applications at national, local, family and individual levels, operating on a permanent basis. Without a new general structure the learning scene will continue to be littered with piecemeal arrangements which are not user-friendly for the learners. The well-educated middle classes are more able than most to step through this difficult landscape, but the non-learners will continue to fall by the wayside in millions.

We have recently published a specification for the general system (Individual Lifetime Learning Accounts - a new infrastructure for the UK) which has gone to the Dearing committee and to government. It has drawn encouragement and support from a wide-based consortium including colleges, universities, industrial training organisations and research bodies.

The system has three interlocking functions, Save to Learn, Borrow to Learn and Credit to Learn, the latter picking up grants from the state, employers, and other parties. Every person would have the right to an account with these functions and to use it for life. The account would be voluntary and the individual would control it. Tax relief would be applied consistently across the system, and the system would support guidance as well as learning. The technology exists for the account to operate through a smart card, opening up the prospect for the general involvement of the banks, large administrative savings for providers and a reliable record of qualifications and assessment credits for learners.

Jim Smith and Andrea Spurling

Bamford Taggs lifetime learning consultants, Hope Valley

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