Editor's comment

12th May 2006 at 01:00
We have a minister for women and legislation outlawing sex discrimination.

On the face of it, Britain is one of the most advanced countries for fairness and equality of opportunity.

Why then do we have further education policies that slam college doors in the faces of thousands of women seeking a return to work after having a family? Like so much of the fall-out from the Government's focus on skills, this is an unintended consequence.

At home with the kids and little if any income, working-class women are among the least likely to qualify for free courses leading to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications. The survey revealing this, undertaken by Claire Callender, professor of social policy at London South Bank university, makes compelling reading. Based on interviews with more than 4,000 adults, it cannot be dismissed as mere anecdote.

In fairness, the Government is not entirely to blame - there are other issues. Isn't education a shared responsibility of the husband and wife? Are we compelling women to stay at home to bring-up children? How much of the burden should the taxpayer bear?

The taxpayer, it seems, wants students to pay a greater share of the costs.

Quite right too. Particularly if, as the report suggests, the profile of the student population is becoming more middle class. But the people losing out most are often single mums with no one to share the responsibilities of bringing up Wayne and Wendy. These are the very people ministers want to get back on to the skills ladder and Professor Callender's work suggests government funding policy is too insensitive to their needs. The rapidly aging population of Britain calls for more education and training, not less, since there will soon be too few school-leavers and young adults to fill new jobs.

Instead, less than a fortnight before Adult Learners' Week, dozens of colleges say they are cutting adult education to fund 16 to 19 education and the skills priorities. As we report on page 1, grassroots protests by college lecturers and managers are planned nationwide.

The Callender report also suggests that many adults are reluctant to part with their money and need to be convinced of the benefits of training. In this case, the big increases in fees are most likely to make things worse.

Of course skills for employment are crucial to the economy. But this calls for colleges to have more flexibility to encourage women back on the ladder to success.

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