Where the future is learning to download pod casts and flower arranging

19th May 2006 at 01:00
It's just after 8pm and principal Ray O Hope is taking a last look around before locking up. As usual, only a few lost souls drift around Studyard college, but every night Ray is surprised that anyone turns up at all.

Maybe, he muses, Victoria Beckham and Noel Edmunds might still swell his numbers. Things started to go downhill in 2006 when the Government insisted that adults should have to dig deeper for the privilege of learning. Six years later only a hardcore remain, oblivious to - or rich enough to ignore - the obstacles.

In 2010, the Department for Education and Skills published its white paper Goin' Broke: How Can We Fund Learning Properly Without Raising Taxes? It proposed adults pay 110 per cent of the cost of "non-essential" classes to make up for past subsidises. Shrewd learners could get a 20 per cent fee reduction by agreeing to a strict assessment regime with weekly exams, preceded by compulsory four-hour revision periods. Teachers, now officially designated curriculum solution providers, were required to be on-site for five or six hours at a time, pushing up costs further.

Language courses had taken the biggest hit, with adults refusing to pay in excess of pound;500 for a 30-week Spanish course. But Education and Skills Secretary Everard Testing staunchly defended the policy: "We agree it is important for people to develop language skills, but why should the taxpayer subsidise courses in French or Italian when much of the population hasn't learnt how to download a podcast?"

Since 2009, all post-16 education and training has been overseen by the Quality and Skills Development Agency for Lifelong Learning. Its chief executive, Ivor Grudge, first made his name as director of Channel 4's Let 'Em Have It, a 40-part series that took learners back to the 1890s and demonstrated how teaching standards had fallen since the discovery of the blackboard. Ivor justified his agency's annual pound;900 million budget on the basis that it was scaling back its regional structure - 750 area offices and more than 2,00 local focus committees.

But, even if Ray had finally been dulled by the alphabet of quangos, he had turned his faith to the power of television. Numeracy courses reported huge increases in enrolments following Victoria Beckham's series Countup, although a new show with Noel Edmunds, Esol or No Esol, had not taken off as expected.

And who could deny that Celebrity Strictly Flower Arranging, with viewing figures in the millions, had forced ministers to make floral art compulsory in the new living skills syllabus?

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