FE focus in plan to widen skills

July 11, 2003

Further education is at the centre of government plans to close the skills gap between Britain and its competitors. But the extra cash for individual learners comes with strings attached.

Other proposals in the skills white paper published this week include free tuition for adults who left school without basic qualifications, a £30-a-week adult learning grant for priority groups in full-time further education and an expansion of the modern apprenticeship scheme.

But the white paper also outlines plans for a national framework to set fees in further education and warns that fees will rise for some groups.

Education secretary Charles Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The inequity in our current system is that people who leave school at 16 with no qualifications get almost nothing spent on them in the rest of their lives; whereas, if you stay on through to university, you get an extra £25,000 or so spent on you, out of which you make more money. This is an evening-up of the process, which I think most people would welcome."

The Association of Colleges welcomed the announcements but expressed regret that priority had not also been given to young adults returning to learning to gain a level-3 qualification, which is equivalent to two A levels.

John Brennan, director of further education development at the AoC, said:

"It is a national imperative to improve the supply of skills at this level.

If a bright person who can achieve level 3 by the age of 19 doesn't pay, those who are capable but don't achieve until later shouldn't pay either."

The Department for Education and Skills is concerned that too many colleges have waived fees for large numbers of people in some target groups because of a fear that students will be tempted to study elsewhere by lower charges or because students are too poor to afford the cost for further education.

The white paper states: "The consequence of prioritising some groups of learners is that other learners who have already achieved qualifications at level 3 or above and are seeking further qualifications at the same or lower levels will be expected to pay higher fees."

Dr Brennan said: "We are not against the idea. We regard the government's argument as being about rebalancing the contributions made by individuals, employers and the state. We are willing to explore this with the government.

"But in doing so, we want to make sure that any arrangements reflect diversity across the country. There will be differences in terms of affordability, in that some areas are more depressed than others, and that will have to be taken into account."

The white paper aims to integrate existing strategies rather than to launch new initiatives. But it does outline plans to reform the qualifications framework, including vocational routes for 14 to 19-year-olds, the modern apprenticeships programme and qualifications and training schemes for adults.

Maths and science in school, college and university will be a priority, as will enterprise and employability skills. The government has also heeded calls to remove the age limit on modern apprenticeships, which is 25. This will be done in stages because of financial constraints. In the first instance, anyone who starts a modern apprenticeship before the age of 25 will be allowed to complete it.

Meanwhile, adult qualifications and learning programmes are being streamlined and rationalised. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, with the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency, will publish a joint paper giving details of the proposed approach later this summer.

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