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FEfocus Editorial - U-turn on places comes with risks

It has been a week of lucky escapes for colleges. First New College Nottingham avoided being burnt down despite the best efforts of rioters who threw a firebomb into one of its entrance halls on Tuesday night.

Now a similar reprieve has been granted to colleges as a whole, as the Government pulled back from its plan to jeopardise the education places of 250,000 of the country's poorest adults (page 23).

The anguished debates about whether the riots are "sheer criminality" or products of social circumstances will doubtless continue, but one would hope we could all agree that this is no time to be withdrawing opportunities for the poorest citizens to gain qualifications and enter work.

Indeed, the Government appears to have been motivated by a clumsy attempt to ensure that these opportunities were provided more efficiently. "Active" benefits are for those who are actively seeking work, so surely they are the ones who should receive free training?

But the benefit system isn't really fit for this purpose, being a vast bureaucracy that tries to reduce the complex circumstances of millions of people into a few arbitrary categories.

Putting the decision into the hands of local FE providers is a solution which is more in keeping with the Government's professed aims of local decision-making and decentralisation. So much so that one wonders why the alternative was considered and persisted with for months, only to be abandoned just as colleges are gearing up for the annual frenzy of enrolment.

Grateful to be heard, however belatedly, colleges have welcomed the decision. But there are some risks that come with it. One is that colleges will no longer be able to point to a consistent national policy for refusing to admit a student onto a course for free: they will have to take the blame.

It is also more confusing for the public, who cannot be sure whether they are entitled to free courses or not, as everything hangs on local discretion. And who knows how many potential students have already been put off, under the impression that they would have to pay pound;1,000 in fees?

On balance, it is probably better for colleges to be in charge of their own destiny as far as is possible, and they are right to celebrate thousands of people on benefits receiving opportunities that would not have been otherwise available.

But it raises the question of why the Government decided to back down on this issue in FE, having prided itself on having "no plan B" and remorselessly pursuing its deficit reduction strategy? The battle for those 250,000 adults' free places in education was a just one, but it attracted little public attention compared with the noisy struggle over the education maintenance allowance.

The answer must be the usual one: money. Bleeding-heart colleges are allowed to recruit people on benefits without charging, as long as they can pay for it by subsidising it from other provision and not claiming any more funding.

The message is that you can win arguments with government, but only if it is not going to cost anything.

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