Welfare reform will blight single parents' education potential, warns charity

24th September 2010 at 01:00
Cuts could make it impossible for adults to use FE to 'lift their family off benefits'

Cuts to benefits are likely to shut single parents out of further education, a charity report has warned.

Analysing the financial circumstances of single parents applying for the grants that it administers, the charity Family Action said they were already struggling to pay for course fees, travel costs and childcare.

Helen Dent, chief executive of Family Action, said: "Welfare reform is prioritising getting single parents of younger children into work from this autumn, yet many low-income single parents with ambitions to find decent jobs face significant barriers to their education and training.

"Unless the Government leads on tackling these barriers, lower-income single parents will be frustrated in their ability to obtain employment to lift their families off benefits."

The charity surveyed 88 parents who had applied for its Horizons scheme, which offers grants funded by Barclaycard to support disadvantaged single parents trying to get out of debt and poverty.

It found that only two of those surveyed had any savings at all. The most common complaint, cited by nearly 40 per cent of applicants, was the cost of tuition, followed by the cost of travel, which was mentioned by 30 per cent of single parents.

The report said: "There are instalment plans available at most colleges, but this still relies on regular, large contributions, and for a family with little 'wiggle room' in their budget, this is problematic."

On average, the single-parent families had just #163;30 a week after paying for the essential bills, rent and food, so instalments could easily be out of reach.

The charity warned that efforts to "get people into work" through welfare reform, which was likely to see benefits reduced, would make it harder for them to access education.

Ms Dent said: "It is a shame that when parents have taken an imaginative approach to finding a place in the labour market by studying for a more unusual profession, or overcoming barriers to study by distance learning, there is no public funding to support their initiative."

After tuition and travel, single parents were most likely to use grants to buy a computer for coursework and to pay for childcare.

Family Action said that although free childcare should be available for parents of three- and four-year-olds, it only covered 12 and a half hours a week for 38 weeks of the year, which may not be enough for many courses, and parents may have other children not covered by the free provision.

Many colleges already try to support single parents, the report acknowledged. Lewisham College pays for childcare through its Learner Support Fund. But last year, despite supporting 152 students with its #163;390,000 budget, it had 161 students on the waiting list.

The college said it caused some students to drop out, as they initially organise temporary arrangements with family or friends, or pay for private provision, in the hope that they will eventually get money from the college. When that cannot be paid, some are forced to drop their studies.

Focusing all the publicly funded support, such as the #163;30-a-week Adult Learning Grant, on qualifications at Level 2 and 3 was also criticised by the charity, which found that many of the parents who applied for support were taking courses that were professionally recognised, but not in the Government's qualifications framework.

One single mother applied for a diploma in funeral directing, in the hope of turning her part-time job at a funeral home into a career, but found it attracted no support because it was accredited by an independent agency.

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