The learning centre at Coopers is currently undergoing a period of uncertainty following an extremely scathing report in the summer of 2007 which classified the LearnDirect sector as ‘inadequate’ in all aspects (Effectiveness of provision, Capacity to improve, Achievement and standards, Quality of provision, Leadership and management) apart from equality of opportunity. The weaknesses highlighted in the report included low success rates on ICT courses, inadequate coaching and training and an insufficient number of qualified staff. The report nonetheless recognized under the category of equality of opportunity the strengths of the centre in providing a positive physical environment that was accessible to company employees and the community at large.
The publication of the report brought to a head various tensions between the company and LearnDirect that had been simmering for some time. According to the HR manager at Coopers, LearnDirect were keen to increase the ratio of community to company learners (currently 60% from company and 40% from the community) in order to increase the potential pool of learners signing up for courses. The company felt increasingly “restricted” by compliance with the LearnDirect national contract and had already begun to seek alternative provision. The company felt aggrieved that the report had not taken account of the type of provision that was offered at the learning centre and claimed that the agency had implemented too restrictive and college-centred criteria for inspection. Whereas the report highlighted an insufficient number of trained staff, the company felt it was unreasonable to expect an organization that was not a formal educational provider to provide more than the two tutors who are currently based at the centre. The report also criticized the centre’s use of untrained staff in the form of youngsters who were providing additional support as part of their New Deal work experience. By contrast, the company stressed the value of their involvement in the centre both for the learners (who benefited from additional support) as well as the young people themselves who gained valuable work experience and job satisfaction.
The company is currently making arrangements for a local college to provide courses in the learning centre (utilising the two tutors who are currently based at the centre). From the company’s perspective this will provide more “flexibility” in terms of allowing them to offer a wider range of courses, including those at a higher level. Such an arrangement has the additional advantage of protecting the learning centre from external inspection. In the meantime, the learning centre is open for employees to engage in learning without embarking on formally accredited courses.
Coopers provides for a range of formalized learning within the company structure but also accords official space for the opportunities for informal learning (observation of other employees, sharing of ideas in huddles, etc.). The increasing “textualisation” of the Coopers work environment has made employees who struggle with poor literacy and numeracy more prone to miss out on formal training opportunities and increases the significance of ‘informal’ learning for these particular employees.
The learning centre represents an important site for the inter-weaving of formal and informal learning opportunities. It is noticeable that the popularity of the learning centre rests partly on it not being too closely associated with formalized learning. The tutors loan of laptops and accordance of space for informal self-directed learning on computers (Searching independently for information) has been an important component of the learning centre.
The learning centre initially attracted national acclaim from institutions such as Business in the Community for its innovative efforts to provide learning opportunities that straddled the company/community divide. Yet, the centre’s incarnation as a recognized LearnDirect centre has also generated various problems that stem partly from differing perspectives over what types of formal and informal learning should be valued. Whereas the OFSTED report highlighted a failure to conform with nationally recognized standards and assessment procedures, the company embraced a looser vision of learning that included both formal and informal elements.