Classes for the masses

November 14, 1997

Economic success and social cohesion can be boosted by widening the base of further and higher education, argues Helena Kennedy

Tony Blair's call for an additional 500,000 places in further and higher education by 2002 augurs well for a continued commitment to growth in post-16 learning being at the heart of the imminent white paper.

Generic expansion of the type seen in recent years, however, has done little to close the learning divide in the UK today. We know that the achievement rates of poor and middle-class children have already sharply diverged by the time they enter school. Recent findings by the Council for Industry and Higher Education show that fewer than half of working-class teenagers equipped with the appropriate qualifications actually went to university. This and other evidence starkly demonstrates the need for an increased emphasis on widening and deepening, not merely expanding, the scope of education and training at all ages and in all sectors.

Most pressing, however, is the case for a dramatic increase in the number of citizens climbing the hill to achievement at level 3 (broadly equivalent to two A levels) which provides the essential platform for cohesion in an ever more complex social context, the springboard for personal and collective economic success and the foundation for a widening of access to higher education. With half our young people ending compulsory schooling without five GCSEs at grade A-C and the legacy of this record of under-achievement extending across the adult population, the scale and urgency of this task is irresistible. It is further education which can and must meet this challenge.

At a time when the calls on the public purse are many and diverse, the need for clear priorities is self-evident. We must face up to the need to prioritise within post-school education and to pay more attention to the question of who pays and who pays for what within the triumvirate of individual, state and employer.

We need more public investment in further education. We need also to increase the impact of that investment by refocusing new and existing resources on widening, and not merely increasing, participation. Those of us who experienced success in initial education and are reaping the economic benefits of that success must pay more for access to continued learning throughout our lives. The public subsidy should be focused much more than currently on supporting those who have yet to achieve at level 3. The rush for growth in a competitive system has often led to a reduction in tuition fee levels in further education such that an hour's tuition costs less than a packet of cigarettes.

When this level of public subsidy goes to those on above average incomes and to employers it undermines the possibility of achieving things like a significant shift from welfare to work. We need a clearer synthesis between mission and market in post-16 learning where those who can afford to make a greater contribution do so and the focus for the public contribution becomes to support those learning activities which advance the mission but cannot generate income.

A crucial part of the mission for the millennium must be to bring into the educational embrace those millions of adults failed by the initial education system. Further education already has an impressive record here but has yet barely skimmed the surface.

While the texture of under-participation varies in different localities we do know that males over the age of 25 and those in low-skill employment have proved particularly difficult to reach. Improvements in access among women are more widespread but much of this work is at levels 1 and 2. The challenge now is to maintain the access momentum, to raise aspirations further and create pathways to achievement at level 3 and beyond.

Further education will need to explore new and ever more flexible approaches, exploit developments in information technology and forge new partnerships with industry and with the wider community in meeting this challenge. Raising aspirations and communicating the benefits and relevance of learning will be central to this endeavour. A much neglected part of my report Learning Works draws attention to the role the mass media - especially popular television channels - can play in this.

The experience of family literacy initiatives also provides some lessons here. In recent years significant numbers of working-class parents have become involved in helping their primary-age children learn to read and through this process some have become more aware of their own basic skills needs. Secondary schools are a rich seam of potential partners with whom further education could exploit the concern and interest that the overwhelming majority of parents have in supporting their children's learning.

More generally, further education providers need to continue to extend their contacts into all walks of community life, to hear of the concerns and interests of local people and create learning opportunities which respond to those interests and concerns. We need to recognise that, for many, the appropriate initial response will be non-formal opportunities which may not be accredited. Equally, we must bite the bullet and produce a framework for credit which will enable learners to build up achievement over a lifetime. This can only be undertaken on a systematic basis by forging wide-ranging inter-agency partnerships.

While further education providers have had some success in attracting learners from under-represented groups, issues of retention and achievement persist. The impact of continued expansion will be considerably reduced if we do not accompany it with dramatic improvements in the way we support learners to enable them to achieve and progress.

Provision of additional learning support has been shown to have a positive impact on retention rates in further education colleges. Any expansion of learning and further education designed to achieve widened participation must afford opportunities for learners to receive information, guidance and learning support throughout and must encourage learners to carry out supported self-assessment and action planning.

The time involved in developing and sustaining partnerships, the costs of responsive outreach work and of supported learning must be recognised. The drive continually to reduce unit costs in the pursuit of efficiency must not be allowed to limit our capacity to become more effective. We need a more refined approach where efficiency is optimised and not merely maximised.

Community involvement in learning is an often forgotten dimension of further education; thousands of adults work as volunteer tutors supporting literacy programmes, some colleges have developed mentoring schemes to provide role models and support for young black learners, others utilise able-bodied students to support those with learning difficulties and disabilities. This is not to argue that widening participation could or should be done on the cheap in further education but to acknowledge the range of ways in which learners can be supported to achieve and progress.

To return to priorities. Claims and counter-claims from further education and higher education about where the lion's share of the anticipated expansion should be is to miss the point. Further and higher education both need to meet the challenge of widening participation and each needs the other to flourish if they are to succeed. Higher education needs further education to broaden the base of those acquiring the qualifications to progress to higher education, and further education needs the progression routes to higher education to open up if it is to persuade more of its learners to follow that route.

In comparison with other OECD countries the UK's most pressing problem is not the production of graduates but the massive failure at level 2. It is in the interest of both higher and further education that the larger share of expansion in the medium term be in further education.

Helena Kennedy, QC, is author of Learning Works.

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