Headlines: January 9th, 2004

The Scottish Parliament’s Audit Committee has criticised a high profile scheme to increase the numbers of people accessing learning as being “fundamentally flawed”. The Scottish Executive closed the Individual Learning Accounts scheme in December 2001 following allegations of financial irregularity and fraud in relation to claims from some learning providers.The committee’s response to the Auditor General for Scotland’s report “Individual Learning Accounts in Scotland” concluded that as a result of errors and failings, an estimated 1.2 million pounds of taxpayers’ money had been paid to cover claims that were either irregular or fraudulent.

The committee convenor, Brian Monteith, said, though, that the costs of the collapse of the scheme had been more than just financial. Evidence presented to the committee showed the scheme was popular with genuine learners and its withdrawal had meant the loss of service to thousands of people who could have benefited from it.

The committee found that what it called a ‘critical error’ had been made in deciding to “piggy-back” onto the scheme designed by the Department for Education and Skills without the ability to influence its development. An opportunity to review the arrangements after devolution had been missed. It also criticises the fact that the scheme was driven by numbers and was introduced in haste to meet ministerial commitments without adequate management and monitoring arrangements having been put in place, Even when risks were highlighted by internal auditors and the enterprise organisations, the committee says, the then Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department failed to respond.

The Committee report outlines recommendations for the way forward, including the need for high quality standards to be embedded in every aspect of the learning experience and that the Department should produce a detailed project plan – with an associated timetable – for the introduction of any new scheme.