How Personal Learning Accounts and AAT could change lives

Personal learning accounts (PLAs) allow those on a low income to study AAT for no cost at all. They’re currently being trialled in Wales, but could their success catch on in the rest of the UK?

Personal learning accounts (PLAs) are government-funded schemes that allow people to study for flexible courses fitted around their family and work responsibilities. They could bring new opportunities to adults in lower-income jobs, as well as those who are at risk of redundancy or who have been placed on furlough during the pandemic.

PLA courses offer people within these groups a chance to learn new skills, acquire qualifications, and possibly change occupations before finding themselves in a career culdesac.

PLAs have been trialled in Wales since 2019, and they could be adopted more widely depending on the results. Here’s how they work.

Why have PLAs been introduced?

PLAs could reverse the decline in adult learning, which has been happening for some years.

According to a report into lifelong learning published by the House of Commons Education Select Committee last year, participation in adult education has plunged to its lowest level in 23 years.

Amanda Williams is AAT and project management programme leader at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai (an umbrella organisation overseeing three colleges in North Wales), where she teaches students who are currently benefiting from PLAs. She notes that PLAs can “open up opportunities for people” in areas such as North Wales where “job opportunities are more limited, and there aren’t many higher-paid jobs.”

The financial relief that PLAs provide is incalculable for many people, says Williams. “To study AAT Level 2, you need to pay around £1,000 for membership and books. When this is already paid for by the Government, a PLA can be a big help.”

Which AAT courses are available?

When PLAs launched in 2019, they were initially available in areas such as digital, construction, engineering and health, which are also sectors that have faced recruitment issues and skills gaps in recent years. With Covid-19 hitting the Welsh jobs sector, the Government launched a £40 million skills and jobs fund in summer 2020. This included an expansion of the PLA programme, which saw some colleges launch AAT courses.

It’s meant that those eligible for a PLA (see eligibility criteria below) can study a range of AAT courses such as a Level 2 Foundation Certificate in Bookkeeping or a Level 4 Professional Diploma in Accounting (check with individual colleges and training providers to find out what courses are available).

The AAT cachet goes a long way with companies looking to recruit, says Williams. “If students put AAT on their CV, employers recognise it and start to be responsive – even if they’re still studying,” she notes.

However, Williams adds a note of caution: if students start a course, they’ll need to work at it.

“Sometimes people think all you need to do for some courses is watch a video,” she says. “But AAT is a challenging course and needs commitment. After all, Level 2 involves taking five exams… It is a fantastic opportunity, but it all depends on hard work.”

How have PLAs helped people?

Several AAT learners/students have benefited from accessing a PLA course at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai colleges. Here are some of the success stories:

Urszula goes from waitressing to a life-changing career

Urszula* is a single mother from eastern Europe who was working as a waitress in a hotel when she applied for her PLA.

 She started studying AAT Level 2 in early-2021, often learning online at the kitchen table while home-schooling her children. By June, Urszula had secured a full-time job at a local accounting practice, which also allows her to study AAT one day a week. She’s about to start a Level 3 course. As Williams says, “It’s really turned her life around. Urszula has not only landed a job but a career too.”

Olivia is now able to afford AAT fees

Olivia* had previously enquired about studying AAT before Covid-19 but couldn’t afford the fees. However, thanks to the PLA programme, she’s now studying AAT Level 2. She’s also got a job at an engineering firm, which grants her one day a week to study.

To ensure AAT PLA students can begin a new career, colleges notify them about any job opportunities. Some jobs recently shared by Grŵp Llandrillo Menai colleges include a trainee accountant working in payroll, an accounting job at a translation company and jobs at the NHS.

PLA programmes can also help people who have been furloughed or at risk of redundancy. Also, if they are made redundant while studying a PLA course, the Government will pay for the remainder of the course.

* All names have been changed.

Who is eligible to apply for a PLA?

At the moment, PLAs are only available in Wales, where anybody who wants to receive financial help to study courses must:

  • live in Wales, and
  • be over 19-years-old.

They must also meet at least one of the following criteria:

  •  be employed (or self-employed) earning under the median income (£26,000).

Or be one of the following:

  • a furloughed worker
  • a worker on a zero-hour contract
  • agency staff
  • at risk of being made redundant
  • in employment but working in a sector that’s been negatively affected by the economy, such as hospitality.

People can’t apply if they’re unemployed or in full-time education.

How do PLAs work on a practical level?

The application process in Wales is relatively straightforward. Candidates can either apply through official organisations such as Careers Wales, Working Wales, or by contacting colleges and training providers directly. A careers adviser from the college/training provider will follow up with an informal interview (usually conducted virtually). There may also be a pre-admission assessment, but people don’t need any accounting skills, qualifications or industry knowledge to apply (unless it’s AAT Levels 3 or higher, of course). 

The 2021/22 AAT courses will usually run from September 2021-June 2022 and can be delivered in a classroom environment or online classes. However, the important part to remember is that PLAs are flexible: colleges will try to plan dates and learning times around the individual’s family and work commitments.  

How does the funding work? Does the money arrive directly in the student’s bank account?

No. Studying a PLA course doesn’t mean that the student will receive the money themselves. The Welsh Government are funding 100% of the courses of PLA students, but they will transfer this sum directly to the college. PLA students will need to pay for their travel to and from the college, while funding isn’t available for childcare either.

How successful have PLAs been in Wales?

Although the AAT PLA courses have only been operating for just over six months, colleges and training providers are quick to enthuse about them. Says Williams: “Our evening courses usually recruit around 8-10 people, but thanks to PLAs, we’ve now got 25. This has meant I’ve been able to hire another teacher… PLAs are a great funding stream that opens up opportunities for those that really need it. When it’s the right person on the right course, it’s absolutely brilliant, because [once they’re employed] these people can contribute so much.”

More info

Candidates can apply for a PLA through Careers Wales, Working Wales, or by contacting colleges and training providers directly.

List of colleges below:

  • Bridgend College
  • Cardiff and Vale College
  • Coleg Cambria
  • Coleg Ceredigion
  • Coleg Gwent
  • Grŵp Llandrillo Menai
  • Coleg Sir Gâr
  • Coleg y Cymoedd
  • Gower College Swansea
  • The College Merthyr Tydfil
  • Neath Port Talbot (NPTC) group of colleges
  • Pembrokeshire College
  • St David’s Catholic College

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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