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Student childcare aid drains colleges

The Scottish Funding Council is to take action to bail out colleges facing "unprecedented demand" for childcare support from students.

Despite a 9.6 per cent increase in the colleges' childcare fund this year, taking it to Pounds 8.3 million, a combination of factors has left many struggling to provide financial support for students with children.

This is a particularly sensitive area in further education since the fund is intended to give priority to mature students, lone parents and part-time students - precisely the groups colleges regard as their natural constituents.

The funding council will not know the extent of the problem until it receives returns from colleges at the end of the month. When it does, it will make an "emergency reallocation", moving money to where there is the most pressing need.

Mark Batho, its new chief executive, said: "Colleges provide an important first step for lone parents wanting to find a job and to get a better income. Reports that students are turning away from college for financial reasons mean that urgent action is needed and we will do everything we can to support colleges in this."

The council was alerted to the situation by the National Union of Students (Scotland). It had been approached about the difficulties being encountered at one college, which it prefers not to name.

When it investigated, the union found a much wider problem. The removal of ring-fenced funding in local authorities also removed funding which had been available to childcare under the Working for Families initiatives.

Welfare reforms at Westminster also played their part: women returning to work no longer qualify for income support and this has led to an increase in the numbers coming back into education to acquire new skills.

Kainde Manji, women's officer at NUS Scotland, was "delighted" the funding council was taking action, but it was "a stop-gap measure". She added: "We will continue to work to ensure that more funding is made available to prevent this situation re-occurring in the future."

The student body will press the funding council to improve the position, beginning with a bigger pot of money for childcare. It also believes the allocation of funding is based on information which is two years out of date.

In addition, it is understood NUS Scotland will press for an end to variations in the way colleges hand out childcare funding : some do so on a 'first come, first served' basis, while others apply a means test. Students want distribution to be based on best practice guidance.

Some colleges saw a significant hike in their childcare funds this year, John Wheatley College in the east end of Glasgow receiving the largest increase of 43 per cent, with Cumbernauld College getting the next biggest rise of 35 per cent.

Four colleges actually received less childcare money - Ayr, Edinburgh's Telford, Langside in Glasgow and Lews Castle in Stornoway.

Colleges' share of the fund is based on a funding council formula - 50 per cent in line with the SUMS hours of study, 25 per cent according to the number of students from the 20 per cent most deprived postcodes and 25 per cent proportionate to each college's number of part-time students.

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