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Association of Computer Trainers – Interview


Last year saw the establishment of a major new body for the IT training industry, the Association of Computer Trainers. James O'Brien, MD of Pitman Training, talked to TrainingZone about the aims of the Association and the current issues in IT training for the general public.

TrainingZone What inspired the formation of the Association of Computer Trainers?

James O'Brien There was a need for the larger training providers to get together to look at what was happening with the Individual Learning Accounts, and to look at public funding of training generally. We started with the three members, Pitman Training, Best Computer Training and Internet Exchange because we three share common ground, in that we all have national coverage and can represent a lot of the industry. In the future we will look at opening up membership in other categories, perhaps to smaller organisations and franchisees. It was important to get the right structure in place to start with and to share experience and views on the immediate issues. And we have found that the government likes to deal with bodies, with organisations, rather than just with single companies who can only represent themselves and their own profits. The government has encouraged public uptake of IT training, and there had to be an industry body to represent major providers and to lobby for accreditation and standards.

TrainingZone What is your view now on what happened to the Individual Learning Accounts?

James O'Brien There were no great surprises. We couldn't have foreseen exactly the way they would be closed down, but there were no surprises in the fraudulent abuse of the scheme. When ILAs took over the provision for adult training for individuals we asked about the rules, and in effect we were told that there weren't any. Several reputable providers warned from the start, or near the start, that there was clearly scope for fraud. And some of the organisations who got involved were simply not legitimate trainers, they were just opportunists.

TrainingZone And what now for public funding of individuals' training?

James O'Brien Well, they are consulting, and we, among others, have been consulted, but the process will probably take several months. Which leaves a vacuum. This is the first time in around nine years that there hasn't been a major resource for the individual who wants to engage in training. Which is a real loss. There has been a lot of commentary from the government end saying that the ILAs didn't reach the people who most needed training, but they did bring people back into training who wouldn't have taken it up without them, and they gave people the incentive to get on with it. A TUC survey on the training market found that ILAs did act as a hook to draw people to improve their skills. And the fact is that there are lots of programmes for the least skilled, whereas it was a great idea to have a programme that was offered to everyone. We have made suggestions, and lobbied, about a replacement for the scheme, with better controls, not high bureaucracy, but basic controls. Some accreditation is obviously required, and we feel that they could piggyback on some of the existing accreditation schemes.

TrainingZone What effect has the fraud followed by closure of the scheme had on providers?

James O'Brien It is impacting very seriously. Many providers and franchisees have promoted ILAs, effectively giving free advertising to a public initiative, and have made expansion plans and business plans that have had to be scrapped. There will be bankruptcies. And it has distorted the marketplace, and led people to expect to pay less for training.

TrainingZone What can training providers do?

James O'Brien They may be able to get the money through - eventually - for people who registered with the scheme before the planned shutdown date. And by the way, you have to ask how much it cost to tell all the 2.5 million account-holders when the scheme was going to close, and then to inform them all again only a few weeks later that this had changed. But beyond that, it's hard to say. Although, we have heard legal views suggesting that it's worth following, that providers have a case to claim that the government had a contract with them, having encouraged them to sign up account-holders. We are awaiting a satisfactory response from government, and all the providers involved will be considering the legal situation. And as an association, ACT will be working to keep the issue live.

TrainingZone More generally, what does the future hold for computer trainers and training, what should be the growth areas?

James O'Brien There are always technological advances that some people need to keep up with, but in the main the real need is for the majority to improve their basic computer skills. Just raising the standard and speed of keyboard use makes a great difference. People buy PCs for the home, and spend most of their time on them at work, but usually can't use more than 20-30% of the functions. We now have PCs in schools, and some kids can do very advanced things with them, but they don't all learn the basics properly. That's how to get people to improve their productivity. If you can save an hour a day just by using your equipment more efficiently, that adds up to more than a month a year.

TrainingZone We are always being told that the UK needs to improve workforce skills. What major changes do we need to make?

James O'Brien We need to promote learning in a different way. We are not a learning culture, we still have this view that to need training means that there is something wrong with you or your organisation. And we should promote a learning culture in a new way. We need to engage in training continually, not just where there is a problem. And we need to appeal to what people want, we have to offer them training that will advance their careers in a real and clear way. People want career-based training, we have to appeal to that, and show them how training can make a difference to them personally, to their productivity, earnings and career progression.

And we have to open out access to training. It doesn't have to be intense and short-term, there should be a range of options, and people should accept the advantages of re-skilling every 2-3 years. Classrooms don't suit everyone, and we have to work at accessibility and flexibility. There's a danger that after the collapse of the ILAs, government could pull back from involvement in a variety of training provision, and say "go to your local FE college", and that would be a mistake. The pubic sector has a very important role, but without a range of provision and without flexibility, there won't be the public uptake of provision that they are looking for.

Principles for the Association of Computer Trainers:

Commitment to delivering high quality supported learning through its network of community-based training centres

Commitment to encourage and deliver learning opportunities appropriate to the needs of the learner

Commitment to providing learning facilities throughout the community to all learners irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or ability

Commitment to work with Government in the promotion of lifelong learning throughout the community


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