Adult? It's got to be dodgy

28th October 2005 at 01:00
The voice on the other end of the line sounded hesitant. "Is that Mr Jones?"

"No thank you," I said, cursing my luck that even at work I couldn't escape the sales calls.

"Mr Jones, I'm not selling anything. I want to ask you a few questions.

About your course, and about David Green."

Ah. So that was it. I'd had such calls before. "What about the course?"

"Mr Green has applied for jobseekers' allowance. Is the course full-time?"

No messing then. Straight for the jugular. "The LSC describes a course as full-time if it's more than 12-and-a-half hours per week."

"That wasn't what I asked, Mr Jones. And what is this LSC anyway?"

Oh dear. It was worse than I thought. Not only had they put a snoop on David's tail, but a snoop who clearly didn't know what she was talking about. "The Learning and Skills Council. They fund courses like mine."

"That's as maybe. But I don't need to know about that. Is it a full-time or part-time course?"

"David's programme has 14 guided learning hours per week. And, as I understand the rules, that means he's eligible for jobseekers'."

"I don't need you to tell me my job Mr Jones. Just to answer my questions."

We continued too spar like this for several more minutes. It soon became apparent that she didn't know what guided learning hours were either. In fact, it seemed the only thing she did know for certain was that David Green had applied for benefit and that it was her job to make sure he didn't get it!

As anyone who is close to the ground in further or adult education knows, the harassing of students on jobseekers' is just one aspect of the bum deal that mature students on advanced-level courses get these days.

In the minds of those who designed the system - or rather caused it to come into being - some strange metamorphosis seems to happen to students once they pass their 19th birthday. What before has been a virtue - that is, the getting of a half-decent education - now suddenly seems to be a sin.

So, whereas for the 16 to 18s there are no fees to be paid and EMAs to help if they have little money to support themselves, for the 19-pluses - however small their income - it's just a case of pay, pay, pay. Fees that were once minimal have soared into the hundreds of pounds bracket, with some colleges doubling what they charge from one year to the next. Any semblance of financial assistance has long since departed, and even the student hardship funds - perhaps the unkindest cut of all - have been trimmed back this year.

So what do the students do? Amazingly, they don't give up. In many ways - a nice irony this - the worst-off end up the best-off. If you have a young child but no partner, or you have lost your job or become disabled and can claim the appropriate benefit, then at least you have something coming in every week. Being pursued, like David, by some twerp who doesn't know their own job, might seem like a small price to pay for an assured income, however small. Not only that, your course fees will also be waived.

The alternative is work. This, remember, will be on top of a course which makes demands that some might regard - though speak it ever so quietly - as full-time. To make it worth your while, you're likely to have to put in a lot of hours, because return-to-learn adults rarely have the sort of saleable skills that will earn them a decent hourly rate. Mostly, it's menial stuff - serving in shops, waiting at table, cleaning offices or other people's homes. Others find they are obliged to sell themselves in even more questionable ways.

A few years back, a student who looked like everyone's stereotype of a Sunday school teacher wrote in a creative writing exercise about a trip to Antwerp in Belgium. It turned out that she wasn't learning how to chant angelic verses, but rather to take off her clothes to the strains of music that certainly wasn't played on a harp! Back in England, she then used her new skills to make an income that most of her classmates could only dream of.

Sadly, she is by no means unique. More recently, another female and not unattractive student told me that she'd have to miss Monday morning classes because of a new job she'd started out at Colnbrook, a small town near Heathrow Airport.

"Why work out there?" I asked in all innocence. She paused, a look on her face of the "do I tell him or don't I?" variety. "I'm working at a lap-dancing club," she said at last. "It's the only way I've found that I can earn above the minimum wage."

The whole thing leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Whichever way you look at it, we - or should that read "they" - are forcing people whose only wish is to better themselves into exploitative and demeaning positions. What price "widening participation", what price "lifelong learning" now?

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