Childcare worries deter lone mothers;Further education

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Colleges say Gordon Brown needs to find even more cash for nursery places, if single mothers are to be attracted back into education. Sue Jones reports.

GOVERNMENT efforts to tempt single mothers back to college are failing through lack of money for childcare.

Colleges are working hard to recruit students from socially excluded groups and have welcomed the extra pound;21 million for childcare places announced by lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks last week at the annual conference of the Association of Colleges in Harrogate. This will fund 30,000 extra childcare places, three times the number promised in Gordon Brown's pre-budget statement.

Nevertheless, many say much more must be done, as the cash provides an average of only 20 days' childcare per student using the service.

Young mothers are a key target in the drive to widen participation. And the Government agrees affordable childcare is essential if they are to attend classes.

Last year, in response to the Kids' Club Network's demand for more childcare places, Education Secretary David Blunkett said: "Our aim is to ensure that no parent is prevented from taking up work, education or training through lack of affordable, accessible and quality childcare."

The drive to recruit single mothers comes against a background of rising applications for basic skills and vocational courses. The Chancellor has also promised another 50,000 computer literacy places for adults. Courses identified as getting people back to work include information technology; administrative and secretarial skills; hairdressing and beauty therapy; and health and social care qualifications.

But many single mothers find private nursery costs of at least pound;18 a half-day an insurmountable barrier. North Hertfordshire college student services manager, Helen Chapman, said: "People are deselecting themselves before they ever come to us."

Research by the Further Education Funding Council and the charity Daycare Trust last year showed that three-quarters of colleges do offer some childcare. Indeed, many see it as an essential part of student services.

North Hertfordshire has a 16-place nursery on its Hitchin site and has negotiated a cut-price deal with a private nursery in Stevenage, but it still can't meet the demand. A successful bid for FEFC funds has also allowed the college to set up a child-minders' network, with charges of around pound;3 per hour.

Salford College also helps students with up to pound;15 per week towards childminding costs. It used to provide creches but felt that funding childminding gave greater equality of access.

However, Jill Silverthorne of Rutland College believes that nurseries support enrolment. Rutland subsidises its nursery places so that students can pay as little as pound;1 per session.

Bishop Auckland College, County Durham, has tackled the complex problems of childcare on a broad front. Its 100-place nursery is open for 51 weeks a year and it also runs a school holiday and out-of-school programme. A bus takes nursery nurses and equipment to outreach centres and parents who pop into the Newton Aycliff learning shop in the shopping centre can have their children looked after while they find out about courses.

The FEFC has tried to target support towards needy groups through access funds and allowing colleges which provide childcare to claim back childcare units. But even these cover substantially less than the whole cost. Means-tested help is also complex to administer and can create resentment in students who fall just outside the qualifying categories.

Colleges can bid for funds for childcare expansion. Local partnerships can bring in cash and funds may also be available in education action zones. But the bottom line is colleges which provide childcare usually have to subsidise it themselves.

The basic problem with expanding childcare is that it is expensive. Caring for a baby can cost twice as much per hour as educating the parent.

Anne Pilkington, of Accrington and Rossendale College, said: "Cheap, high-quality childcare is a contradiction in terms."

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