Mutiny on the bounty hunters' circular

24th September 1999 at 01:00
I AM not sure whether the intention of Circular 9922 on "extending the widening participation factor for 1999-2000" is to extend the widening, or widen the extension, but I am clear that it should be called Circular 9922: the Bounty Hunters. Students who come from areas without the motivating benefit of gravel drives and double garages already have a price on their heads, and the reward for their capture is to be extended to groups such as the homeless, those with mental health difficulties, refugees, those in supported accommodation and those whose education has been interrupted by pregnancy.

The widening participation factor is one of those issues which threaten to make the FE funding methodology complicated. We must not let this happen because it would put college principals in a difficult position if it did. Following the Halton report, principals are expected to be sure that their claim made to the Further Education Funding Council for funding units is accurate - and how do we do that without checking the origin, status and eligibility of each individual student. Not only that, but in future all returns to the FEFC must be "fully explained" to the corporation by the principal. How full is fully? And will there be any governors left when I finish? Anyone faced with these daunting tasks needs to know the ins and outs of the funding issues of widening participation and I feel compelled to offer what little help I can.

First comes the widening participation factor for the college as a whole. Few know how it was arrived at or what use it is. Mine is 1.028 and I am mightily proud of it. I suspect it might be something useful to have in my back pocket when the remuneration committee is looking at the college's examination results. If yours is higher than 1.03 you're either in a big city or a contender for the Public Accounts Committee. That 1.03 got you the full 5 per cent growth for next year, and the funding to go with it. Just make sure that 60 per cent of the growth students don't have an indoor toilet.

Each student with an unfashionable postcode gets an individual weighting according to the number of unemployed adults or burnt-out cars on their street. This weighting is applied to course units and the college gets some additional funding. Funny that, I thought it was the students who were short of money. What's more, not only the residentially challenged can benefit the college. From next year, only people in Surrey will be exempt.

Pretty soon we'll be able to halve the number of students and double our unit count again. Colleges are already starting to advertise for bounty hunters, or widening participation co-ordinators as they are euphemistically called. Students will soon wise up to their value. Traveller vans will be welcome sights on lay-bys outside colleges. The homeless will know where to get a roof over their heads, contraceptive machines will be removed from student loos, graves will open and the dead will rise.

Now I know this is all very worthy. And I know that widening participation involves complex sociological, political, economic and educational considerations. But, even as one who benefits, I have to question the sense of it. At least five members of the college management team and two of our governors would earn widening participation points were they to enrol. Some of our most able and malleable students have postcodes from hell. Some, for heaven's sake, are downright working class.

There must be less complicated ways of getting funding to those in need. Weight the most commonly used programmes even more, perhaps. Increase Access funds. Make childcare an entitlement. Provide computers for home study. Provide homes for home study.

I am afraid the funding methodology will sink under the weight of its own complexity. I think it is all about control. Someone wants it all tied down so that every penny is spent on the object of the steer. But the greater the complexity, the less the transparency, with a higher risk of abuse or simple error. So, I am happy to be consulted, I just wish there was less need to.

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