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MPs seek to close the learning gap;Further Education

Ngaio Crequer reports on Labour's ideas for persuading more people to take

up lifelong learning

THE GAP between the haves and the have-nots has widened over the past two decades, despite more people taking part in learning, MPs said this week.

And colleges cannot be blamed for the lack of progress. Any hopes of more people participating in learning after 16 will "depend profoundly" on primary and secondary schools improving.

In a comprehensive report, MPs on the Commons education and employment Select Committee criticised schools and colleges for not co-operating, said that students were not getting enough information about where to go next, and demanded a new culture to extol lifelong learning.

"Why is it that, despite the continuing increase in participation, the same stubborn trends of non-participation among certain sectors of the population appear to persist? And what can be done about it?"

One question that needed to be answered, the MPs said, is whether more people would be persuaded to stay on if a school had a sixth form, rather than not. Certainly there was persuasive evidence that the introduction of the GCSE has been "a powerful single factor" in encouraging people to continue their education.

The further education sector has seen phenomenal success. Between 1993-94 and 1997-98, the total number of students enrolled on further education courses rose by 47.2 per cent.

The increase in older students was much larger. The number of 19 to 59-year-olds rose by 67.5 per cent, and of those aged 60 or over by nearly 100 per cent.

"As a general rule, all kinds of post-compulsory learning lead to higher earnings than average and lessen the individual's chance of unemployment," the report says.

Derek Foster, who chairs the employment sub-committee, said that lifelong learning was at the heart of the Government's agenda for economic efficiency. "But the economic arguments must not so dominate that issues of social cohesion and personal development are neglected."

Five factors routinely prevented people from engaging in learning: lack of guidance; uneven funding between schools and colleges; poor student support; high fares; and childcare costs.

The information and advice given to students was "insufficient, selective or partial" and sent different and confusing messages. There needed to be an independent source of information.

It was also essential that the funding of comparable learning in schools and colleges was carried out equitably. But as school sixth forms would continue to be subject to local authority funding, differentials in funding were likely to persist, the MPs said.

More imaginative strategies to encourage unemployed people to take part in learning should be encouraged. An "activity" test could allow people to study full-time without losing benefit.

The committee heard evidence that remission of student fees for those on benefit had been an indirect form of student financial support which had helped to contribute to an increase in the uptake of learning.

On transport, the Government was urged to provide public funds to equip educational bases in remote communities.

"We hope the Government will demonstrate its commitment to lifelong learning by 'going the extra mile' in taking learning to people as much as taking people to learning," the report said.

Pop stars, footballers and film stars should be used to promote learning. "This may be a gimmicky thing, but we have to find a way to capture the imagination of people who have not been interested in education," said Mr Foster.

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