Choose crispbread or ciabatta at the funding picnic

Helena Kennedy was reportedly in fine form at the Further Education Funding Council's London Conference recently. A rendezvous with the dentist prevented me from going, but I am told that people sat back, open-mouthed - as I was. She was sensational.

When she's not mixing it in court in high-octane cases usually involving violence and death, or bringing to our TV screens cases of gross injustice, she is to be found chairing FEFC committees - two at the moment. One is working on a fundamental review of the funding methodology, the other at ways of widening participation in further education. Funding issues come into everything, of course, but I suspect that if she wanted to be remembered for one report rather than the other, she would plump for widening participation.

Her committee has produced what amounts to an interim report, and as you read it you cannot help being swept up by the combination of remorseless logic and real passion. The case that her committee makes is strengthened, not weakened, by being so obvious.

Those who have argued that education is for individual fulfilment, those who maintain that, on the contrary, its purpose is to provide the skilled workers to support the economy, and those who think it's really about effecting social change all have their heads firmly banged together: they are all correct, and there is no reason for them to disagree.

As Helena Kennedy points out, principles of equity demand that everybody should have the opportunity to succeed. Equity is a close friend of justice, so she knows what she is talking about.

She also knows, far better than most, that the law can sometimes get in the way of justice. Certainly it does in this case. Legislation about entitlement to welfare benefits is an obvious example of an impediment to further study. It has long been recognised that the opportunities for adults are the weakest part of colleges' provision. You have to be very determined, very knowledgeable and reasonably well-off to make it to our allegedly open doors. Many of the millions who are today's no-shows, have none of those qualities, and it was precisely to suggest ways of increasing their participation that the Kennedy committee was set up.

The irony is that in some parts of the country colleges have been finding a route through to these neglected hosts, and that the routes may now be on the point of closure. Helena Kennedy talks about the need to find new learning pathways and takes the view that the operation of the education market will not be enough to open them up. Yet some, repeat some, of the franchising activity which has come in for blanket criticism has been with community, voluntary and other not-for-profit organisations, and has given opportunities at entry level to exactly the sorts of people who have not been willing or able to attend in the past.

Where this kind of thing has been funded at the Demand-Led Element level (the lowest level, paid to colleges which have already exceeded their annual targets) and given that the source of this funding is being firmly corked by a treacherous government, it will disappear from college programmes.

The point is that provision for those who have ignored colleges or been ignored by them will have to be new and different, and that will cost money. Since the new clients will not, as a rule, be joining programmes which are already running there will be extra staffing costs, to say nothing of set-up costs in preparation, marketing, and equipment. You will also need to reckon on additional costs of guidance before they start and extra support while they are with you. They will not be merely more of the same.

This is where Helena Kennedy's two chairing hats may become interchangeable. As she points out in the interim report, funding is the most important lever for achieving change. Some incentive to colleges to go out and look for these new students will have to be built in to the methodology. Problems of definition will be inevitable. Who is a "new" student? Are they to be recognised by length of absence from education, by the current level of their qualification, by their social class or ethnic origin, or by what? And if they were to attract additional funding to the college, for how long? How long would they remain Kennedy students, as they would no doubt become known? A year? Two? Until they had reached a certain level of achievement? Level two? Three? These are issues which will need to be thoroughly debated, at a time, remember, when average levels of funding are heading unstoppably south, and when every belt in the sector is being tugged tighter.

Unless we all know what the rules are, the certainty is that sharp-suited colleges will find ways of displacing some of today's clients who bring only the basic rations with them, and replacing them with those who come with a bigger dowry. Managing a college is no picnic these days, but if you were planning one where numbers were limited, would you invite those who would offer crispbread and luncheon meat or those who promised ciabatta and pate?

The way forward, the report suggests, may be through local partnerships. There are places where these have worked, notably in bids for government money under the terms of City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget, but these are themselves competitive activities, pitching local consortium against local consortium.

Such a bidding process may improve the quality of the thinking, but if Kennedy means anything it must mean that all colleges should try to widen participation, not just those who win competitions to do so. Local partnerships, of whatever kind, must also imply a planning process to which a college would contribute, which it would not control, and by which it would be bound. Are we ready for that?

Michael Austin is the principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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