Putting people in charge of their own learning and careers support: Making Personal Career Accounts Work

27 April 2015

Back in the summer of 2014 we launched Skills for Prosperity, our Manifesto for the 2015 General Election.  Amongst other proposals, we used this to introduce a new idea for personal skills and career accounts for all adults, linked to an entitlement to career reviews, helping people decide what skills development works for them.  

We have recently reinforced this proposal as one of the key actions that a new government could take in its first 100 days after the imminent 7 May General Election in our Ten Policies for Ten People policy solutions paper.

A re-read of Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s well-known book, The Blunders of our Governments, gives a frequently quoted critique and an account of the lessons learnt  from the previous experiment on accounts – Individual Learning Accounts.  Introduced in the early days of the Blair government, the ILA experiment was widely seen (not entirely accurately, it must be said) as being plagued by fraud and mismanagement.  So what is different about our proposal?

Like many of our plans, this is a “learner first” initiative, designed to extend the principle of personalisation across the learning and skills system. It puts people in charge of the direction of their skills development, and places what can often be inflexible government resources, or Byzantine systems, more in the control of the learner.

We think that Personal Career Accounts could mirror the recently announced Help to Buy ISA (where the Government will top up people’s savings for a house deposit) – equivalent to a “Help to Train ISA” with the Government topping up individual’s and employers’ contributions.  Over time, this could be supplemented by routing other public services through this account, such as employment support.  This helps create a system for a proper shared investment in learning – from learners, employers and the state – with a wider offer of career review and development opportunities.  Career reviews at key transition points can help people make informed choices about the investment they make in their own development. State investment and employer skills investment will make up the tripartite funding which every adult needs across their lifetime.

The case for this is strong.  In Ten Policies for Ten People we demonstrate that almost two thirds (£36billion) of total Government spending on education and training is committed to schools, whilst the Further Education budget has been reduced by one-third over this Parliament.  Participation has dropped by almost 11 per cent – that’s over 350,000 fewer adults in education and training.  The 24+ loans system is not working to rectify this.  £498million is earmarked 2015-16 for 24+ loans but we would need almost 200,000 24+ learners to utilise this – an assumption we do not think is realistic.  Employer investment in training has also fallen – total investment in skills does not match the scale of the UK’s learning challenge. So we need to urgently rethink how we resource the training of working age adults in this country, if we are to provide the skills our businesses and economy need to prosper and grow.

The critics – including King and Crewe – would cry out that this risks repeating the mistakes of previous attempts at accounts.  But King and Crewe also show how with changes to safeguard against the mistakes of the ILA experiment, accounts could work as a force for good in lifelong learning and education.  

Our proposal takes this one stage further.  We know that the safeguards are now far stronger, and our proposal puts these centre stage to prevent fraud and limit the risk to the state or the individual in taking this scheme forwards.  In particular, we set out last summer how accounts can now be established using the infrastructure of Unique Learner Numbers , personal learning records and the register of training organisations, measures that were either non-existent or in their infancy 15 years ago, learning from previous experience both in England and internationally.

This is practical stuff, and we want to support the next government to make it happen.  It can create a “win-win” situation for learners and also to rectify the slide in participation we have seen as a consequence of public funding cuts and the introduction of loans.  This is why we want to support a new government to work with the Combined Authorities in our largest cities (London, Manchester and Birmingham) to establish local Personal Career Account pilots.  We would focus on supporting them to obtain signature qualifications so that they can fill those skills gaps that are holding back local businesses.  This could be funded by the unallocated 24+ loans budget for levels 3 & 4.

Ten Policies for Ten People is clear on the people these changes will help.  The new, safeguarded accounts mechanism in particular can help workers to get the skills they need for life and work, help the 5.2 million low paid workers, those who earn less than two-thirds of median hourly pay, to progress in their careers.  Since introducing the idea in 2014, we have garnered very strong support from across the Skills Sector, including the Open University, Association of Colleges and the 157 Group.  Jo’s case study, set out in Ten Policies, makes this case well. 

Join us and support NIACE making a reality of these proposals after the General Election.


Find out more about this policy area here or visit our proposals pageDownload Ten Policies for Ten People.