Cinderella sector needs better outfit

June 27, 1997

In a radical rethink of post-16 learning, Helena Kennedy is pushing for a seamless education system, shorn of bias with better access for the poor. Alan Thomson reports

HELENA Kennedy's long-awaited report on increasing participation in education presents a hard case for a radical re-think and re-balance of post-16 learning in the United Kingdom.

From the start Ms Kennedy emerges as a passionate supporter of further education. To many, further education is the Cinderella sector stuck in a "calibrated hierarchy" of achievement that emphasises academic success through higher education. Ms Kennedy attacks the decision-makers and opinion-formers for their "app-alling ignorance" of the role of further education.

She says: "It is because the achievements in further education are so rarely lauded that we have failed to recognise its potential as a vital engine not only of economic renewal but of social cohesion." She recognises the "growing disquiet" created by the new market-led approach in further education. She says this has "encouraged colleges not just to be businesslike but to perform as if they were businesses".

Today many colleges, says Ms Kennedy, tend to go in pursuit of students most likely to succeed. There is a corresponding lack of initiative in reaching people from poor, ethnic and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds.

Set against this backdrop, she argues powerfully for a new understanding of the role played by further education in the economic regeneration of Britain. But she warns that "justice and equity" must also have their claims upon the arguments for educational growth.

"Education has always been a source of social vitality and the more people we can include in the community of learning the greater the benefits to us all. It is the likeliest means of creating a modern, well-skilled workforce, reducing levels of crime, and creating participating citizens."

Ms Kennedy is calling for a new compact between employers and trade unions. "Corporations should be propelled into a competitive drive to bring learning in to the workplace, with trade unions and employers collaborating in the endeavour." There is a specific proposal to create 50,000 learning resource centres within the next 20 years, covering a third of the workforce. Ms Kennedy suggests that these centres should form a part of the Government's new University for Industry.

The report also recommends Pathways for Learning which offer flexible routes in to education designed to open access to people at every stage of learning. This should be backed, she says, by a new student support system which is available for those in further education and which ought to be weighted towards helping poor people, particularly those with little or no existing educational achievement.

Ms Kennedy is keen to see the creation of a "seemless web" of education. It would rid the system of its existing divides, most notably that between further and higher education. She is noticeably quick and determined to point out the "serious iniquities" in the financing of post-16 education.

She says: "Only a quarter of the five million post-16 learners in England attend universities. Yet two-thirds of the post-school education budget is spent on these universities. Lifelong inclusive learning becomes meaningless rhetoric if money is not made available to make such a grand project a reality.

"Like the trickle-down theory of economics, there is a trickle-down theory of education which relies upon the notion that concentrating the bulk of educational investment on our top cohorts produces an excellence which permeates the system. For centuries, this thinking has blighted not just the British economy, but the whole of British life. It demands an urgent reappraisal."

Ms Kennedy suggests that money for further education may be pooled in a Learning Regeneration Fund. She also suggests that National Lottery Funds could be spent on reaching the non-traditional learners.

KENNEDY'S AGENDA FOR CHANGE

Launch government campaign "Learning into the new millennium: the creation of a learning nation"

Dedicate lottery funding to launch the "Learning into the new millennium initiative"

Prioritise widening participation in the post-16 education agenda

Re-distribute public resources towards those with less success in earlier learning, moving towards equity of funding in post-16 education

Establish a lifetime entitlement to education up to level 3, which is free for young people and those who are socially and economically deprived

Create a national network of strategic partnerships to identify local need, stimulate demand, respond creatively and promote learning

Encourage employers to provide learning centres linked to the University for Industry; large firms would have to have their own, small firms would need to work together or with larger firms

Reform the FEFC's funding mechanism to recognise levels of previous achievement and social and economic deprivation

Create an expanded FEFC "Access and Childcare Fund"

Harness new technology for learning

Launch a credit accumulation system, to be operative within five years

Create new "Pathways to Learning" - a unitised system for recognising achievement

Take learning to the learner

Reform financial support to students, including the benefit system, in the interests of equity and promoting "Welfare to Work through Learning"

Launch "Charter for Learning"

Create a "Learning Regeneration Fund" at regional and sub-regional levels

Establish a legal duty upon television to educate

Set new learning targets and local targets for participation

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