Funding is the key to success
Anticipation mixed with customary caution are the feelings shared by colleges awaiting details of the new Labour Government's Welfare to Work programme.
The programme aims to get 250,000 young unemployed people off benefit and into work in three years. Four options are offered, each involving day release, education or training leading to a qualification. Employers will be offered Pounds 60 a week to take a young person on.
The scheme will be funded by a Pounds 3billion one-off windfall levy on the excess profits of the privatised utilities.
With one voice, the colleges say they can do what the Government asks, but cash is needed. "The colleges must be properly funded for the work that has to be done," said John Brennan, director of development at the Association of Colleges.
"We would also like early consultation on issues such as volume and content of programmes. We will have no difficulty in providing new offerings and a variety of learning programmes for the individuals involved."
Vince Hall, principal of Dewsbury College, goes further. "The further education sector is like the football league, a few clubs at the top doing very well and all the rest going quickly bust. How colleges can run on an average level of funding of Pounds 15 a unit - well below the national average - without cutting what is needed to run the Welfare to Work I do not know. "
But the principals agreed the programme must not be one more in a long succession of schemes which had proved costly and ineffective. "I want a long-term contract with a regional office, a good infrastructure, not a series of short-term schemes and a number of colleges going bust," said Mr Hall.
Lack of detail from Labour has made some cautious. Tom Jupp, principal of City and Islington College, said it was not clear whether there were to be special schemes or whether people had to sign up for courses. Mr Jupp asked: "If the latter, are they going to lift the 16-hour rule that restricts study time for claimants?
"New qualifications must be skill-specific and lead to qualifications. But some of the people out of the system at 16-19 are out because they don't want the GNVQ route. They had a negative experience at school.
"If Welfare to Work is to give choice, then that's positive, and if they can make jobs happen that is fine. But there's no point in drafting people into education or training. I feel puzzled about what is going to happen," said Mr Jupp.
Lena Stockford, principal of mid-Warwickshire College, warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. "We already have an excellent model in Modern Apprenticeships, which are rigorous and give people skills. Short, sharp fixes of narrowly focused training will not do."
Many more lecturers would be needed to provide the one-to-one teaching, and this needs cash, she said.
Mr Brennan agreed and said the AOC was studying the implications. "The experience of these individuals at school was not positive and that is often one of the reasons they have become unemployed. Then having been unemployed for six months, they lack motivation and confidence.
"We will need schemes to stimulate their imagination and get them to take advantage of the learning opportunities available. There will be a great need for courses in literacy, numeracy, ability to work in teams, and performing in a disciplined environment. Once again, it all comes back to funding."
None of this will work unless new capital investment is guaranteed, colleges insist. Roy Snelling, principal of North Lindsey College, Humberside, said: "The colleges can respond speedily and effectively but only if the money is there.
"We have no surplus in the colleges to absorb this programme. There has to be funding for equipment and accommodation, where there are real, costly pressures."
Mr Snelling wants Welfare to Work funded directly through the colleges, rather than Training and Enterprise Councils. "Otherwise we would have to bid, negotiate and contract, and another level of bureaucracy is built into the system," he said. "Colleges have shown they can respond quickly, provided there are adequate levels of funding."
But if the scheme is to lead to "real jobs" there has to be partnership between the colleges, local employers, training organisations, careers services and others, he said.
There were also implications for a whole plethora of support services, from counselling to childcare facilities for young unemployed parents.