Will different feet tread upon green and pleasant land?

17th October 1997 at 01:00
One strong and abiding memory of my largely ineffective Methodist upbringing is of standing tall and belting out the hymn which includes the line "Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host", and not knowing what it meant. Now, of course, I do.

Our college gates may not be entirely nacred, but the host which streamed in at the beginning of September is certainly countless, and will remain so for some weeks to come. The question is, however, not just how many there are, but whether they are any different from the hosts who came through the portals in earlier years. Has Helena Kennedy's thunderous report on widening participation died silently away? Is the New Deal for the habitually excluded actually including anybody new? It is probably, as the Chinese communist leader Chou En Lai said when asked whether the French revolution had been a success, too soon to tell.

However, colleges have been planning and marketing their 1997-98 programmes since long before the new measures were announced, so if they have had a busy September and their numbers are looking good they won't be able to take in extra students anyway, because growth over target is now outlawed. If there is to be new money for the college sector, it is for new and additional work of a different kind, not a top-up of cash for work already in progress.

So, unless the Government intends to change the rules again to allow expansion once more, it will only be under-achieving colleges which have the capacity to take on the new work. This may be their only chance to save themselves from the embarrassment of missing their targets. But where do you think the best pizzas are to be had? At the place where they are so bombed out with orders that they can't serve you? Or at the next-door parlour where the ovens are under-used and the staff are looking anxiously up and down the street for last-minute customers?

If the customer-count has been disappointing, perhaps the mixture is the problem. For the pizza, new toppings; for the college, new curricula. Another legacy from the Methodist experience is sufficient residual Latin to know that the plural of curriculum is not curriculums. And you shouldn't say consortiums, either. The collective noun for several groups of collaborating colleges is consortia, pronounced miracle.

And it will take one of those to meet all the need of those who until now have not snacked with us. It is conventional to speak about the barriers which they have to surmount or we have to remove: notably lack of money, lack of confidence, lack of understanding about what the menu means, lack of transport, lack of opportunity to come when we are serving, and so on. All those are familiar and, probably, soluble by offering money from colleges' access funds, guidance and counselling, improved information, bus passes, and a roll onroll off curriculum respectively.

Colleges collectively are doing all of this now, and individually some of it. An offer of free enrolment if your postcode implies likely disadvantage is quite common. The Further Education Funding Council has rushed out a guide to good practice, called, imaginatively "How to widen participation". It is full of helpful hints and examples of how colleges have managed to think their way through to the grateful clients, some of whose appreciation is conveyed in breathy soundbites at the end of each cluster of ideas. So, we can't say any longer that we don't know what must be done to bring willing but disadvantaged customer up to and though the door. However, there is one group for whom there are no suggested strategies and it may be the most significant group of all. The ones who are simply not hungry.

There will be some who were so alienated by what they remember of their compulsory time at school that they have no appetite for any more learning. There will be others who have come to the view that the values of a society which insists on linking receipt of benefit to work or study are not their values, and that they want no part of it. A third group simply say that the whole scheme is a fraudulent ramp to persuade them to come off the register of unemployed in a cynical attempt to prepare themselves for work which will never be there for them.

For such people, neither spicing up the offer with inducements nor seasoning it with threats will make their gastric juices flow. Forced feeding is unpopular among the captive geese of Strasbourg, doing a certain amount for their liver, but nothing for their hearts and minds. Yet, can we afford simply to let these disaffected groups continue to opt out, even if, as a consequence, they also opt out of weekly benefit? Would that not make us an exclusive society again, rather than the inclusive one, with a matching inclusive education system, which we now seek to become? Not just one, but many conundrums there.

Colleges are, of course, not only creations of social policy, but turn strategic policy into local action. We should be there when the relationship between compulsion and voluntarism is being debated; who better to advise on the educationchoice of lifestyle nexus? But we are also quasi-independent corporations, well able to judge who our clientele should be, in fact required by statute to make such judgments. Our conclusions will be located somewhere along the spectrum which runs from altruism to self-interest. Those who judge us and our performance are not always alive to these subtleties. "Never mind the mission," you hear then say, "have you hit the target for ? on seats?" Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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