Plans to widen participation must be backed by financial help for poorer students,
say colleges. Simon Midgley reports.
IF THE Government is sincere about pushing up participation in further education and training then it urgently needs to put in place a decent student-support system, colleges have said.
John Brennan, the Association of Colleges' director of further education development, said the financial barrier was a crucial obstacle to higher participation.
The way forward was to extend the educational maintenance allowance pilot schemes - where 16- and 17-year-olds receive up to pound;40 a week - nationwide. There also needed to be an improved system of financial support for adult learners. All adults get at the moment is what colleges are prepared to give them from their access funds.
The Government has said it wants to see 100 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds in education or training, and a much higher proportion of adults.
Mr Brennan said: "What we want to see is means-tested support for pupils in schools and colleges." He suggested ministers could "abolish universal child benefit for 16 and 17-year-olds and transform it into a targeted, means-tested educational allowance for the poorest families".
He added: "The reality is that middle-class kids are going to participate come what may. Working-class kids on the other hand face pressure to leave school and go to work at the earliest opportunity." Financial incentives were crucial to persuade the latter to stay on after 16, he said.
He would also like to see stronger financial support for adults. He said adult FE students should be entitled to loans of up to pound;3,500 a year for study at level two or above, repayable if their income rose above a set level. This should be coupled however with an entitlement to free tuition up to level three or A-level.
Judith Norrington, the association's director of curriculum and quality, said there was a fundamental tension at the heart of the Government's post-16 agenda.
On the one hand, she said, the Government was keen to drive up standards, while on the other colleges were expected to be inclusive: working towards widening participation and maximising all learners' potential.
Each agenda, she added, tended to work against the other. "The way to get the best outcomes, if you are working towards A-level, is to recruit those who already have pretty good level-2 skills at GCSE.
"But what FE has always been brilliant at is extending the range of learners and looking at those who have been failed by the school system."
However, she said principals were pleased the Government had for the very first time - via the Social Exclusion Unit's report, Bridging The Gap - addressed the needs of the 161,000 16 to 18- year-olds outside education, training and employment.
The Government's proposed measures to help the most deprived pupils - such as giving the most vulnerable personal advisers and bringing in a "one-stop-shop" advice service - were, she added, also very welcome.
But Ms Norrington was concerned that the achievements of colleges with disadvantaged students were not being properly measured. With schools focusing on league tables, colleges were having to take on students whom schools had asked to leave because their performance was not good enough. In one instance just after Christmas a college outside London had to take on 14 such pupils from just one school, she said.
"We are not talking about total failures or disruptive pupils," Ms Norrington said. "What we are talking about is people who are doing probably the best they can do but who are not necessarily going to get an A at A-level."
In recognition of the fact that league tables do not tell the whole story, the association is working on added-value measures of colleges' achievements. This work is being done on behalf of the Department for Education and Employment.