Hardship sets the limit on growth

Strategic partnerships and new learning pathways are among the recommendations of a nine-month inquiry, reports Ian Nash. Student hardship is one of the biggest barriers to expansion of further education in England, an official committee of inquiry chaired by Helena Kennedy QC concluded after a nine-month investigation.

It was the issue which roused most concern in the Further Education Funding Council committee's trawl for evidence from more than 600 official national post-school organisations. The committee was charged with finding ways to encourage wider uptake of FE among adults, unemployed people, minority groups and others who traditionally reject lifelong learning.

Access funds must be increased and ways found to help colleges respond to students in need, the committee says. New arrangements for childcare, discretionary grants, travel and transport and help in studying while receiving benefits were essential.

"We are agreed that the current arrangements are wholly unsatisfactory and act as a barrier and disincentive to participation," says the committee. It will come as a stricture to Government since ministers have failed repeatedly to fulfil pledges to reform student support.

The qualifications and study options funded by the FEFC are also seen as a big disincentive to adults participating. And while the national FE strategy based on market principles has done some good, the committee agrees, it had led to "wasteful duplication".

Two ambitious reforms are called for immediately by the committee. Firstly, strategic partnerships should be funded to develop joint working to widen participation locally. These would draw together such groups as the colleges, adult education centres, employers, local education authorities, training and enterprise councils and universities.

The FEFC has responded with a pledge to set aside Pounds 1 million a year for the next two years to help develop detailed proposals for consultation.

Secondly, a "new learning pathway" is needed to provide better routes through FE for adults who find the present diet of exams and courses inappropriate and too often geared up to school-leavers. The need is so urgent, the Kennedy committee says, that action is needed for new pathways starting in September.

The recommendations come in the first of a two-stage final report. The second, fleshing out these and wider proposals from the committee, will be published by the FEFC in June.

The Tories will find little comfort in the report, which suggests that the market needs to be reined in. The language of the report is couched in clearly new Labour terms. It talks of the need to see learners as "stakeholders", calls for "visionary planning" and more rigorous systems of "strategic planning, " locally and nationally.

More partnerships of providers are needed to tackle areas where, individually, they have failed to make inroads under the strategy of market competition, says the report of the committee. But it leaves colleges firmly in the driving seat for a national strategy.

"Schools, higher education institutions and employers all have their specific roles to play. The contribution of the further education offered by schools and others is, however, unique. It alone can provide a comprehensive offer to reach all learners, whatever their ages or previous achievement or experience of learning."

But colleges also come in for criticism in the report. While some had achieved considerable success in widening participation, others had not. Expectations of students and the quality of some provision was not high enough. "Even within individual providers, performance can vary greatly," the report says.

"The priority is now to provide the right incentives and support to share the knowledge and expertise that exists. Innovation, in particular through the use of information technology, should be encouraged."

Some steps have already been taken by the FEFC in view of evidence from the committee. Nine characteristics of good practice, with case studies, were recently published, as was a practical guide to identifying good practice in FE.

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