Colleges' real childcare customers are not teaching andsupport staff but the students who need help to stick with their courses.
Neil Merrick reports
About two-thirds of colleges provide direct childcare facilities for their students. The Daycare Trust, a national childcare charity, estimates that 33,000 children are in nurseries and cr ches run by colleges nationwide.
About 19 per cent of full and part-time students are estimated to have children aged 11 or under. This means that as many as 700,000 of them may require childcare support if they are to continue with their courses.
Of the 33,000 children in college-run nurseries and cr ches, 38 per cent do not belong to students. Since many cannot afford the childcare fees, the colleges are forced to open their facilities to staff and the wider community.
Lucy Lloyd, head of information and policy at the Daycare Trust, accepts that colleges offer childcare places to others in order to balance their books, but thinks it is time more places were made available to learners. "With staff, we're talking about people on salaries," she says. "With students, we are talking about people on low incomes who can't afford to purchase marketplace childcare."
In a survey of 308 colleges for the Daycare Trust carried out by Chris Grover, lecturer in social policy and social work at the University of Bradford, three out of five colleges found that students failed to complete courses because of a lack of affordable childcare. Dr Grover estimates that 2,700 students drop out of further education for this reason each year.
Three-quarters of the colleges said that facilities were inadequate, with similar numbers reporting that they have a waiting list. "The average student with a subsidised place pays about one-third of the full charge, but charges vary because the fundin system is so complex," he says.
When planning childcare provision, colleges must be aware of the Children Act, which dictates how many places can be registered in each nursery or cr che. Every child must have a nominal amount of floorspace and staff supervision, while younger children are required to have more of each.
Diversity in the sources of funding for childcare in further education is in itself a problem, Ms Lloyd believes. "You rely upon people with a lot of enthusiasm and expertise to draw the money down," she says.
Anthea Smith, childcare manager at Stoke-on-Trent College and vice-chair of the National Association of Nurseries in Colleges and Universities, is also concerned about the "funding quagmire" faced by colleges hoping to set up childcare facilities or financial support for students who cannot afford fees. "They don't always go to the best places and sometimes that cuts off other sources of funding," she says.
Stoke-on-Trent runs two nurseries for 140 children, while a further 75 are placed in outreach centres. All the places are reserved for students, only a quarter of whom pay all or part of the fees.
Students do not pay childcare fees if they receive benefit. In March, the Government revealed details of a new childcare access fund to replace the Further Education Funding Council's tariff system. A total of pound;25 million is available for the next academic year - up from pound;9 million this year.
Ms Lloyd is hopeful that the additional funding will help to provide more and better assistance to learners in future. But, in view of the financial and physical hurdles still facing college managers, she does not underestimate the task ahead. "We need committed people who are willing to put a lot of time and effort into developing childcare facilities in further education," she warns.