Efforts to combat social exclusion will dominate debate at next month's Association of Colleges annual conference in Harrogate. Over the next four weeks Simon Midgely will be setting the scene and looking at how colleges are meeting Government growth targets
Helena Kennedy, in her recent report on attracting more people into colleges, identified 15 million adults of working age in this country with no qualifications whatsoever.
Colleges currently mainly offer adults the chance for part-time study, although they manage to provide full-time education for 60 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds.
The obstacles to adults include inadequate student support, insufficient childcare and lack of money. It is also clear that there is a need to develop new ways of attracting those without any experience of the world of education and training.
Attracting these learners, for example by outreach programmes, community and family learning and other innovative forms of educational engagement, already involves significant costs and resources.
Many such learners, for example, will need access to computers, specialist tutoring and advice.
Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argues that these additional costs mean that the funding needed to attract more adults should be at least equal to the level of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds offered to schools and training and enterprise councils.
For several years the association has contended that A-level students in school sixth forms are likely to be between 5 and 20 per cent better funded than if they were doing the equivalent qualification in a college.
Those doing an equivalent national vocational qualification through a TEC provider also attract more money.
Such inequitable funding is likely to make the colleges' task of widening participation and achievinging the Government's lifelong learning aims even more difficult.
To minimise social exclusion, innovative outreach programmes of community and family learning need to be developed in partnerships of colleges, local authorities, the social services, voluntary sector and employers.
David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, last week unveiled a pound;9 million package to pump-prime partnership schemes to promote adult learning in the community through the local authorities.
This was a modest but welcome step and the colleges will want to see bolder initiatives from the Government this autumn.
Core funding for colleges, the AoC contends, is still inadequate. Ideally the money should follow the learner.
The extra 430,000 FE students that Government measures are expected to attract raise urgent questions about student support. Currently, students in FE are inadequately and patchily funded by local authorities via the discretionary awards system to the tune of pound;150m a year.
By comparison higher education students enjoy pound;2 billion of support.
The Government is proposing to replace the discretionary awards system with more equitable national support arrangements. This is strongly supported by the AOC.
Given the political will, the child benefit system could be radically reformed and the money redirected to either provide all young people over the age of 16 with a financial entitlement irrespective of their family's circumstances or to a smaller, targeted, means-tested group of over-16s.
However, there are other ways in which students could be supported. The proposed individual learning accounts for those at work could be an additional route for increasing financial support for FE students, but funded to a higher level than the pound;150m proposed.
Government education, training, state benefit and taxation policies could also be harmonised to maximise the opportunities for individuals to engage in lifelong learning and to minimise the obstacles preventing their participation.
In the United States, for example, there are much more favourable tax exemptions for individuals and employers wishing to take advantage of education and training.