Minister gives way on adult learning

28th April 2006 at 01:00
But free courses must prove they are a bridge to formal qualifications

Ministers are planning to create a new entitlement to free "stepping stone"

courses in response to the backlash over last year's adult education cuts.

Bill Rammell, further and higher education minister, told the House of Commons education select committee on Monday that he wanted to fund courses to bring people with few or no qualifications back into education.

But he said colleges would need to demonstrate that the classes helped people progress to formal qualifications to benefit from government funding.

MPs challenged the cuts, saying they had the unintended result of forcing the closure of courses that help people back into education.

Colleges insist that courses which do not lead to formal qualifications are often the best way to attract people with a negative experience of education back into the classroom. Yet these have been hit hardest by the cuts.

Mr Rammell said: "To take the point about the danger of unintended consequences, what we have taken very seriously is the need to realise what is going on below level 2.

"We have set out for the first time in the white paper how to turn that into an entitlement. If we can achieve that, it's a big step.

"When we are establishing the foundation tier, we have got to establish that it really does lead to progression. Then, in time, if funding is available we will create it as an entitlement."

The Department for Education and Skills' own estimate is that 700,000 places in adult education will be lost by 2008 because of the funding changes, which focus on literacy, numeracy and GCSE-level qualifications.

Referring to the need to secure funding for the new entitlement, Mr Rammell gave a personal assurance: "I think we will."

The white paper for FE, "Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances", suggests using employers' sector skills councils to identify classes which will help students progress to GCSE-level courses. It proposed putting these into a coherent framework of qualifications below level 2 - called the foundation learning tier - and replacing the "confusing" current arrangements.

But committee member Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington, questioned why ministers insisted that adult education must be relevant to work, while supporting courses such as classical Greek in higher education for their own sake.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said he welcomed a concerted attempt to address the rapid decline of adult education.

One in four people aged over 60 had dropped out of adult education since the funding changes, and every age group over 30 had seen student numbers fall, he said.

But Mr Tuckett warned that the systematic, target-driven approach of the Government may be counter-productive. "There's no single route. Adults don't learn in tidy ways. You can't tell the learner's purpose from the title of the course. A vocational plumbing course might be for high-level DIY, and a cake-decorating course might be a platform for a business.

"It's no good saying, 'We will give them good guidance.' It is the exploring time which rebuilds people's curiosity, confidence and employability. In a target-driven culture, we must avoid hitting the target and failing the culture."

By making the new foundation tier more systematic and more oriented towards formal qualifications, the Government risks putting off the students who are best served by the existing, informal provision, he said.

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