Scrapping a 'life-transforming' course for older learners has caused outrage on Merseyside. Martin Whittaker reports
A college praised by inspectors for its adult education provision has been caught in a storm of protest after cutbacks forced it to scrap a long-established course for older learners.
The Second Chance to Learn programme in Liverpool is 30 years old and can boast more than 3,000 ex-students, including two former city Lord Mayors.
Most students were over 50 and joined with few formal qualifications.
Liverpool Community College says government funding priorities leave it with no choice but to end Second Chance to Learn in its existing form.
Educationists, local politicians and many of the course's ex-students joined forces this summer to protest at the demise of the programme, described by its participants as "life transforming".
The row on Merseyside sparked a debate in the House of Commons in May in which skills minister Phil Hope was forced to defend the Government's skills strategy.
It has also come to symbolise the wider issue of national funding priorities for adult education, says the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Jane Ward, Niace's regional development officer for the North West, said the course is one of many casualties of a much wider swathe of cutbacks. "These cuts are a consequence of government policy, funding allocations and targets," she said. "We are not opposed to investment in skills, but the approach adopted excludes many groups and clearly prioritises the economic case for investment in learning over the social case."
Jimmy McGovern, Liverpudlian writer of hit television dramas including Cracker and The Street, has been one of the voices of protest. He taught creative writing on the course in the 1980s. He had left school at 16 with only a few O-levels. "I went back to education when I was 28, and I know from personal experience that lots of working-class people don't take advantage of education in schools," he said.
"The other reason I became passionate about it is that I had friends who went through there and I have seen it work. I have seen it be a huge success. These are people with nothing in poor areas, and they go there and they blossom."
Second Chance to Learn began in 1976, initially via Liverpool university and the Workers' Educational Association and latterly through Liverpool Community College.
According to founder Martin Yarnit, the programme coined the phrase "second chance" in adult education and began as a way of involving people in urban regeneration. "The course looks as if it's about history and basic skills, but what it has been about more than anything else has been creating an influential network of local working-class people in Liverpool, who have gone on to do some very important things for their communities," he said.
One of these is Jacquie Johnston-Lynch who runs an addiction therapy centre. She says she would not be where she is today if it wasn't for the programme. She was a mother of two who had effectively left school at 13 through truancy. "I had this overwhelming sense of desperation to know where I fitted into the world, but I didn't know what to do about it," she said.
"Then I saw a leaflet in the library about the course and decided to give it a try, and I haven't looked back since."
Liverpool Community College has been judged "outstanding" by Ofsted for its skills for life agenda and approach to widening participation. But it has found itself under increasing financial pressure through cutbacks. Its adult education budget for 2006-7 has a gap of pound;1.5 million, with a further pound;900,000 redirected to students taking a level 2 qualification.
The college says that more than 4,000 adults participated in its return to learning courses last year. The specific Second Chance to Learn course accounts for just 180 of these students.
It says it has run this stand-alone programme for 15 years, attracting many retired learners who do not have basic skills needs. And its variety of subjects and options has allowed many students to attended the course for several years.
While the course will no longer continue in its present form, its curriculum will become part of a foundation programme for students addressing basic skills needs and working towards level 2, offered through its community drop-in study centres. Principal Wally Brown said: "We didn't want to lose the course, but we couldn't continue to have it stand alone because it was vulnerable for future funding.
"The college has a range of drop-in study centres around the city. This course was based in one of our city centre sites, and we needed the city centre space for 16 to 18-year-olds, who are a key government priority.
"So we decided to keep the elements of the course, but move it from the city centre and place it in our drop-in study centres around the city, where it can be linked to skills for life. By doing that we protect the funding."