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Open access? It will be a squeeze

Narrowing participation. Somehow it doesn't have quite such a sexy ring to it as the more usual phrase, widening participation. Perhaps that's why we haven't heard it on the lips of any Government ministers yet. But in the field of adult education, narrowing participation is exactly what they're up to.

Not content with cutting tens of thousands of adult places in pursuit of those retired Surrey stockbrokers and their subsidised wine-tasting classes, now they seem to be chipping away in all sorts of other areas too.

Let's be fair though. Not all of this is down to malice. Some of it - such as aspects related to the Age Discrimination Act that came into effect in October -has every sign of being more cock-up than conspiracy.

Before Christmas, a letter landed on my desk from the Training and Development Agency, the body which oversees teacher education. It was written by a civil servant, so naturally I had to read it twice to get the meaning. But in the end I could see that its message for the Access to Teaching students I teach - and for many others like them across the country - was quite simple: the goalposts had been moved.

When they started their courses, back in September, anyone aged 27 or over could progress to a primary teacher training course without a science GCSE.

Now, courtesy of the age discrimination legislation, they will need the GCSE to get their place at university.

I rang the training agency in search of an exemption. These students, I explained, had already embarked on their road to being a teacher: given up jobs, reorganised their lives, found nursery places for their children. No chance! That's their problem chum, I was told.

Now another letter has arrived. Its origin is yet another Government agency: the Quality and Assurance Agency. With immediate effect, it says, Access courses (like those of my aspirant teachers) can no longer be reserved for mature students only. The reason? Someone has twigged that it may be contrary to the Age Discrimination Act.

Essentially what this means is that all adult students now face competition for the dwindling number of access places from 16-to 19-year-olds looking to escape the straitjacket of A-levels.

Is there, somewhere, a silver lining for maturer students in all this?

From September, students up to the age of 25 will benefit from the free fees allowance 16-to 18-year-olds already enjoy. But if it is now illegal to keep young people from courses designed for mature students, surely the discrimination ruling must apply to funding? In other words, that upper limit of 25 will have to go, meaning free fees for all.

Sadly no. Apparently course funding falls outside of the new legislation.

To put it another way, if you are over 25 and hoping to change your life through education, you can look forward to a happy new academic year of fewer places and rocketing fees!

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at South Thames College, London

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