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Is Helena Kennedy an angel?

Cash-strapped FE students given grants to help them do degrees certainly think so. Sue Jones reports on a pioneering bursary scheme.

Yosser Hughes' catchphrase "I can do that, gissa job," distilled the hopelessness of being at the bottom of the economic pile in the 1980s.

Escaping through education was never a solution for the characters in Alan Bleasdale's dark comedy, Boys from the Black Stuff.

Twenty years on, do adults with few saleable skills have a better "second chance?"

When fork-lift driver Paul Magrath was made redundant yet again, he searched the local paper and realised there were lots of jobs for nurses.

But change on that scale would take more than just a job application. By then in his thirties, with a family, two O-levels and no evidence of recent learning, he qualified for higher education by studying for an Advanced GNVQ at Bury college for two evenings a week.

This summer, after three years full-time study, he graduatedfrom Salford university - and immediately got a job as a hospital radiographer.

"I've got a structured career now," says Mr Magrath. "I'm getting the salary and paying more tax, which is good for the country all round. And the local community have got a brand new radiographer out of it."

But people don't realise how hard it is financially, he says. He survived on a student loan, his wife's salary and tax credits and, crucially, a bursary from the Helena Kennedy Foundation.

The arguments for widening participation on grounds of equity, social inclusion and national economic benefit are well rehearsed and broadly accepted. But groups such as the poor, the disabled, ethnic minorities and mature students still struggle to get into and complete higher education.

When they do, it is usually through FE. And though finance is not the only barrier, it is often a substantial one.

The Helena Kennedy Foundation is the only charity in the country to address this barrier to university access. Since 2000, the foundation has given more than 100 "second chance" students one-off bursaries of pound;1,000 to support them into their first year of HE.

"It's the first organisation to give bursaries from the FE sector to HE," says chair of trustees, Dr Ann Limb. "It's the only organisation that specifically does that. It's kept alive the report Helena did on the students who'd missed out."

Baroness Kennedy's 1997 report, Learning Works: widening participation in further education, argued passionately for a major review of financial support for disadvantaged students.

"Something had to be done to fill the gap for poor people going into higher education," says Lady Kennedy, who is president of the foundation. "People were encouraged to go back into education and raise their sights, but were really hampered by fear of getting into debt."

Foundation co-ordinator Anne Faulkner believes that the organisation's success has come through working closely with FE colleges. "It's a charity set up by the sector for the sector," she says.

Fifty colleges are "Foundation Friends" and make regular donations. The trustees include college principals. Other donations come from individuals, businesses and charities.

Any FE college can propose just one student per year. Applicants for the 12 annual bursaries write a statement explaining their educational, financial and family circumstances, and how they intend to use the cash.

There are also 18 "badged" bursaries sponsored by particular organisations and targeted at specific areas of study. For example, the National Proficiency Tests Council supports students from rural areas who want to take agricultural courses.

The foundation has hit its first target of pound;250,000 and in Phase 2 aims to raise pound;500,000 by 2010. As well as more bursaries, they want to set up a telephone and web-based helpline on the Learndirect model for students from social groups under-represented at university. People with no previous university connections need someone to talk them through the information, especially about finance, explains Anne Faulkner.

Past bursary winners are also volunteering to act as mentors for their successors, supporting them through difficult times.

"People don't understand that if you genuinely want to widen participation, all the jigsaw pieces have to be there," says Lady Kennedy. "Many of our students have been in care or have terrible family backgrounds.

"They don't have families who cheer them on from the sidelines, or support networks or someone that's going to be there to write them a cheque.

"They don't have those comfort zones that provide the back-up."

For many working-class young people, fear of debt is often stronger than confidence that education will increase their earning power, she believes.

That is why she opposed the scrapping of grants. "While it was right to look again at the contribution of comfortable middle-class people to higher education, I was shocked at the withdrawal of the grant.

"With the background I come from, I would not have gone into higher education (without a grant). You have to have means-tested grants for people from disadvantaged backgrounds."

"I do think you have to provide the right kind of support, and for me, loans don't do it."

So she will continue to bear down on anyone with money who comes within range of her passionate determination to expand the Foundation's funds.

Trustee Richard Eve wants to draw in more colleges, but he also has his eye on companies that work with the sector, such as information communications technology suppliers, auditors and lawyers.

"They're making money out of the FE sector and we'd be hugely grateful if they could make a donation that would go back to the sector."

Many organisations have very good intentions to provide money for education, and could increase the number of badged bursaries to 50. "We administer it, they sponsor it," says Mr Eve.

And beyond the money - spent on anything from fees to books to living expenses to childcare - there is the vital morale boost that comes from winning it.

Susi Henry says: "It was one of the best things that happened to me." After arriving from Jamaica and taking A-levels at Lewisham college, Ms Henry applied to read law at Emmanuel college, Cambridge, with no idea where the money to study would come from.

Now she has graduated from Cambridge and, after taking a masters, wants to work in international human rights and contribute to her younger sister's education.

"You know in yourself you can do it, but it's knowing someone else believes in you," she said.

"There are angels really in the world."

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