From education to employment

Extending Access to Learning Through Technology, says National Audit Office

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, has praised Ufi’s tremendous success in establishing the learndirect service, which has – in a short space of time – challenged traditional learning methods and introduced innovative and effective ways of reaching greater numbers of potential learners and improving the skills of the general population.

Currently, 7 million adults in the UK have no formal qualifications and in 2003, 26 % of people of a working age did not meet standard numeracy and literacy requirements. Employers have a responsibility to train and enhance the skills of its workforce if the UK is to compete with the workforce in other countries where employers have invested more in the training of staff.

The Beginning of Ufi

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) ““ in a former departmental guise – invented Ufi in 1998 specifically to develop workers” skills, aiming to work with employers to increase employees” capabilities. Ufi and learndirect now receive the majority of their £930m funding from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). Many adults with a low level of school education are reluctant to enrol on formal courses at further education colleges, and so learndirect provides an easier, more flexible and therefore more appealing method of learning.

Over the last seven years it has become an organisation providing 500,000 learners a year with the opportunity to improve their skills, either by attending one of its 2,400 learndirect centres, or working from home. Ufi is today one of the largest e-learning networks in the world and has a greater number of students than any educational organisation outside China. The learndirect provision places a whole wealth of services at the learner’s disposal facilitating the overall learning process. Advice on career and learning opportunities may be obtained by calling the National telephone Advice line, or visiting the learndirect website.

Learndirect’s greatest strength is undoubtedly its innovative use of technology to extend access to learning, ensuring that those who might not otherwise have been able to return to learning are encouraged to consider taking up an educational course.70% of learndirect courses in maths, languages and IT are available online. In addition its network of learning centres (including 6000 online centres) also provides an invaluable resource for learners. Of the 2,400 learndirect centres, 1,600 are main centres that provide a wide range of learndirect services, while a further 800 are link centres that provide access to basic services and refer people to main centres.

The Report

The National Audit report found significant evidence to show that Ufi had indeed succeeded in its aim to increase access for learners. In fact, learndirect centres provided 110% of the planned provision in 2004 -5, a considerable improvement on earlier years. There is also much evidence to show that Ufi, learndirect and UKonline have attracted learners who might otherwise not have taken up learning. A total of 1.7 million people have taken up 4 million courses throughout 2005. The majority of these learners (65%), just under half of callers and a third of website visitors, have not been in learning over the last three years.

Half a million people are using UK online centres every year, and almost two-thirds of this group are from the 2,000 most deprived and geographically disadvantaged communities in England, with 80 % coming from key disadvantaged target groups. In addition, overall success rates for individual learners are also high with 70% of total learners completing courses and over 50% achieving their goals. Finally, 59% of learners have progressed on to further learndirect courses.

John Bourn hailed learndirect’s “innovative feat” and affirmed its position as the “largest education provider of its type in the world.” He furthermore acknowledged its success in “attracting large numbers of learners who otherwise would not have undertaken learning.”

Further Development

However, he also identified areas where there is room for improvement and opportunities for further development. One of his concerns was the management and administration costs, which though less in recent years, still take up too large a portion of the budget. He claimed that these “need to be streamlined so that more money can go into services for learners, and to increase the emphasis on small- and medium-sized businesses.” The National Audit office concluded that further reductions of costs could be achieved through rationalising and realigning the four tier structure of its supply chain.

It also revealed that Ufi could do more to promote its products by marketing learndirect materials more widely to reach employers, or schools. Although key statistics reveal that 75% of people are familiar with the learndirect brand only 37% have an understanding of the actual services it provides. Marketing its products more widely will increase awareness of the substance behind the learndirect brand name. In addition, although a large proportion of people using learndirect and UKonline do progress on to further learning, the number could still be higher.

Ufi also has a duty to ensure that its services are sustainable – particularly, the areas of the network in rural areas or targeting disadvantaged groups for whom learning is vital. Despite an overall consensus of success and achievement, improving consistency of learner assessment and expanding work with employers were also areas where the National Audit office felt that Ufi could more.

Sara Hashash

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