Few colleges are well-placed to bid for cash for distance learning innovations. Ian Nash and Anne Nicholls report on a TES NEC survey.
A 30-year-old waiter studying Spanish, a biology-loving gardener and a single parent doing GCSE accounts all have one thing in common.
None of them attends Croydon College. They don't have to - other than for the occasional tutorial - because they all study at home.
Croydon's venture into open and distance learning started five years ago. But the big push came in 1995 when Tony George became head of a department to draw different strands of the work together and encourage its development.
Like many who as the NECTES survey reveals, think there is inadequate demand for such courses to justify the work, Mr George was surprised how quickly it all took off.
"This year we have recruited around 200 students. There is incredible demand. I have a file of 60 more people who I have sent pamphlets to this week, " he said.
Like many colleges in the game, the early work was GCSE and A-level study for those who could not reach college regularly. But it soon expanded to take in workplace study, more complex home-college links, national vocational qualifications in practical languages and accountancy courses.
Terry Bartlett, his deputy, happened to have done open learning as a student with the NEC. "So I had a student perspective as well as a college-wide view," said Mr George. He soon signed the college up to the NEC Flexi-study scheme giving access to tutors in other colleges. "This networking is as important as running the department."
Students are treated just like any other full-timer. They have initial assessments, advice and guidance with enrolment interviews. There is a round-the-clock information and advice service to keep them in contact. And they have access to a flexi-study centre and well-equipped library either electronically or by occasional visits.
Tutorial time is set aside - 15 minutes a week for GCSE and 30 for A-level, in addition to all the other support. For those on traditional courses, there is a requirement to attend colleges for exams. But for others, doing NVQs for example, new methods of assessment at a distance are being drawn up.
"We can cater for the full range of students, including those with special needs. We have blind and deaf students and two suffering from ME." The list of students off the mainstream, with awkward working arrangements, includes an 18-year-old dancer, a ship's steward and a prison officer.