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Poor are sacrificed in dash for cash

Services for poor students and those with special needs are to be sacrificed at one of Britain's biggest colleges to stave off cash cuts. Ken Ruddiman, principal of Sheffield College, said he was putting middle-class counterparts with ready money first.

Mr Ruddiman spoke out as he unveiled plans to open at weekends to minimise staff cuts. His college faces a Pounds 1.8 million shortfall this year after its budget was capped. A recovery plan has been drawn up to fend off "significant" redundancies.

Some neighbourhood centres for the less well-off will close and a weekend programme will start. It will include exam crammers for school pupils, art classes, information technology training and lessons in DIY. Creches will be provided without subsidies.

Mr Ruddiman said he was given no option in a market-driven economy. He added: "The lesson for FE from this Government is stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap. It's what the private training providers have been doing for years. Don't bring me your poor, students with special needs or ethnic minorities who need subsidies."

Many colleges - facing the worst predicted job losses since incorporation - are considering similar moves. Others without a big middle-class catchment area, say it is impractical as a big revenue provider.

Sheffield College's 117 sites have a mix of inner-city and middle-class interests. The weekend programme will bring in at least Pounds 100,000 in the first year and grow rapidly, Mr Ruddiman predicts.

Colleges are developing a new tradition of Saturday classes. They reflect growing demand, particularly from adults who work during the week. In many classes parents learn alongside their children.

Salford is the latest college to open on Saturdays. About 200 adults started a range of vocational courses in January.

Assistant principal Jan Boothman said the experiment had begun last year with GCSEs in maths and English and has expanded to such subjects as computing, languages and art and design. From September, she hopes to open a creche to encourage more parents for the three-hour sessions.

"Within reason, we are willing to open the college so that people can come at the most convenient time," she added.

The college lecturers' union NATFHE insists lecturers who work on Saturdays should be given time off in lieu or paid overtime. Assistant industrial relations secretary Kate Foley said lecturers must not be pressurised into working weekends. She added: "We don't want staff to be overworked."

Jan Boothman said Salford College had not experienced any problem in persuading staff to work at weekends.

Mid Cheshire College began a Saturday college in February 1995, offering one-day courses. It now runs eight-week blocks in the autumn and spring terms. Popular subjects include accounting, first aid and food hygiene, along with non-vocational courses like furniture restoration.

The opening of a creche led more family-orientated programmes. "We have definitely identified a market," said Ian Yarrol, head of student services.

John Brennan, Association for Colleges policy director, said many more colleges were opening on Saturdays. "It means they offer a flexible programme which meets students' needs more closely and tap into markets which otherwise they wouldn't be able to touch."

Solihull College started Saturday classes in the late 1980s. Demand has surged, not only from adults but also young children and teenagers. "People look at our prospectus and see what is on offer," said community education co-ordinator Gill Hutchings. More than half of the college's 400 Saturday students are under 18. "Teenagers do not seem to mind continuing their education on a Saturday," she said.

About 100 adults on vocational taster courses in subjects such as languages and information technology receive a voucher for 16 hours free learning from Birmingham Training and Enterprise Council. Many then enrol for other courses.

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