SENIOR Tory and Liberal-Democrat MPs have formed a surprise alliance to attack the Government for favouring 16 to 19-year-olds at the expense of older learners.
The criticism came at the committee stage of the Learning and Skills Bill, which will overhaul the structure of further education.
Tory FE spokesman Tim Boswell said the duty on the new Learning and Skills Council to support adult and continuing education was too weak. He asked: "Why does this division between 16-19 and adult education continue to exist in this legislation?"
He was supported by Liberal-Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis who called for the entitlement for all students to "level 3" (A-level equivalent) education to be raised from age 19, as proposed in the Bill, to 25. He said:
"This Bill is all about structure, nothing to do with the needs of students and lifelong learning. The Government is terrified of the universities and older students are treated like second-class citizens."
Labour MP Charlotte Atkins said there was a huge skills gap at 16 to 19 and priority had to be given to this age group, where extending a schemeto pay students a weekly allowance had increased enrolments.
Fellow Labour MP Hilary Benn, a former adviser to David Blunkett, thought provision should be determined by demand, while former FE lecturer and Labour MP David Chaytor called for more tertiary and sixth-form colleges to "generate an appetite for lifelong learning".
Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks said a balance had to be struck between priorities. "The Government is passionately committed to lifelong learning from the nursery to old age," he said. "What people don't seem to realise is that this Bill makes education an entitlement for all 16 to 19-year-olds for the first time in the history of public education."
The number of FE students has fallen for the second year in succession - the first time in two decades that this has happened.
Further Education Funding Council data show an overall drop of 0.3 per cent in students last year - a severe blow to Government plans for a 700,000 increase by 2002. On full-time courses, 16 to 18-year-old intake increased by 1.4 per cent, but enrolments among older students fell 4.6 per cent.