Women are being turned off studying by compulsory exams. Emma Burstall reports.
Women are being put off returning to college to improve their career chances because exam demands are too intimidating, adult education experts have warned.
Their findings revealed at a conference marking International Women's Day give the first tangible evidence of the damaging effect the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act has had on adults seeking a second chance in education.
The Act split adult education into vocational and non-vocational. Only the vocational attracted Government cash through the Further Education Funding Council, if tutors could prove that courses led to a nationally-recognised qualification.
The legislation caused an outcry and critics said it would kill off leisure education courses. These had a proven track record in boosting the confidence of adults who then progressed to examined vocational courses.
Ministers dismissed the fears, voiced particularly by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. But evidence to show that the most vulnerable women from economically and socially-deprived backgounds are being deterred is now mounting. The problem was discussed at conference organised by NIACE.
Dr Veronica McGivney, NIACE research and development officer, said little research into the effects of the act on access for women returning to learn has been done.
Now NIACE has set up a group to look into the impact that Government demands for formal approval or accreditation of courses is having on their uptake.
"We suspect accreditation could have an adverse effect on disadvantaged women in particular who lack confidence. In some ways accreditation has been a good thing - lots of women want it - but it can be seen as a barrier to people who just want to put a toe in the water and come back into education in an informal way," Dr McGivney said.
Speakers at the conference included Maggie Coates, lecturer in vocational qualifications at the Open University. Ms Coates said while researching a new book Recognising Good Practice in Women's Education and Training, she found that accreditation was deterring women, particularly vulnerable ones.
"Practitioners are saying there has been a change in the kinds of women coming forward. If a woman's initial experience of education was not successful and she has experienced a lot of failure, she may worry about putting herself into a situation where she thinks she might fail again," she said.
Although most women who joined accredited courses found them useful, it was important not to put them off the first step. She was concerned some non-accredited courses would lose their funding and disappear.
"We need to get some hard facts about what is happening. We don't want accreditation to turn the clock back," she added.
Judith Summers, chair of the NIACE executive committee said major, national debates were focusing on post-school and adult learning including the Dearing review of higher education and the European Year of Lifelong Learning.
"Our particular concern is the accidental damage done to women through funding mechanisms that are not flexible enough and fail to promote good practice, " she said.
NIACE director Alan Tuckett said boosting women's education and training was central to the European Year of Lifelong Learning.
He said: "Much of the debate about adult education, the marginalisation of part-time workers and the learning required for development and a successful economy, is really about women.
"The new labour force is substantially feminised and if we are going to make national targets for education and training we must support women effectively, " he added.