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Public sets great store by work of the colleges;TES Survey;FE Focus

A TESLancaster University survey probed the public's views on the sector's performance. Ian Nash reports its findings

Overwhelming support for a considerable increase in public spending on colleges is indicated in a survey carried out for The TES.

The survey of public attitudes to colleges, based on in-depth discussions in focus groups throughout the UK, was carried out for the fifth anniversary of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act and the incorporation of colleges Many people questioned felt the immediate cash needs of further education were, if anything, more pressing than those of for early year teaching. The view was held even by young parents who had no intention of going to college.

Cash should be used to help mature students return to learn, they said. There should be a sliding scale of fees charged and university-style student loans should be available for those likely to earn enough to afford future repayments.

The sophistication of thinking among virtually all participants in eight focus groups - managed by researchers with the University of Lancaster school of independent studies - shows the extent to which further education colleges have sold themselves to the general public since incorporation.

Most participants in the groups, which were conducted across the UK, had a very clear understanding of what colleges did. Comments included: "They do everything from aromatherapy to A-levels and NVQs" and "further education has much to offer - learning skills you can actually go out there and use."

There was some confusion over what was further education and what was higher education, though most understood FE as post-school, possibly leading to university. Many stressed the importance of colleges in developing social skills.

A 23-year-old computer engineer said: "Further education got me where I am. If it wasn't for that, I'd have no idea what I'd be doing." There must inevitably be some scepticism over the readiness of most to support a hike in taxes to pay for FE.

Several said they would probably say the same if questioned in similar focus groups for the NHS. However, they went on to argue that cash within education should be redirected in favour of FE.

A 51-year-old farmer from South Wales said of his taxes: "If one had a choice as to where it went, FE would be high on my list." Another participant said: "In a civilised society, you must pay taxes, and I would like to see more of it going to FE."

There was a general feeling against the "elitist" funding regime which favours higher education. It was here, more than anywhere else, that it was felt a shift should be made in favour of FE to focus on the estimated 6 million adults with numeracy and literacy problems.

Colleges seem to be well known because most people had family or friends at one, if they had not been themselves. Many had knowledge through the workplace as employers offer more study release. There was a feeling from several groups that colleges played a significant role in the community.

Despite the praise for colleges, many said people were excluded by high costs of courses, lack of childcare support and the inaccessibility of many colleges in rural areas.

Affordable childcare was a problem for virtually all with children, both for those needing after-school care and creches for toddlers.

Alternative study routes such as the Open University and distance learning were repeatedly mentioned. But single parents said the more they could find time to study as home, the more they needed to develop other skills and have contact with other adults.

The 30-year-old mother of a pre-school child said: "The OU is expensive and if you are not earning it's not easy finding the money, then there's finding the time when you've got small children and babies. You don't always have the time or the energy."

The lack of time, cash and support for childcare was seen as the most pressing issues. Estimates at the time of the general election suggested 50,000 parents were prevented from studying or retraining for work because of these factors.

Exorbitant fees of anywhere from pound;90 for a GCSE to about pound;5,000 for a computer course were keeping people away in droves.

An unemployed nurse was asked for pound;90 for an IT course. "I just couldn't afford it and was quite upset about it. When people are looking for work, being able to study doesn't only help them get jobs but it disciplines them into not staying unemployed."

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