The last shall be first

July 4, 1997

BETTING shops, pubs and billiard halls should be the new recruiting ground for the post-compulsory education sector, Helena Kennedy QC said as she launched the Learning Works report this week.

The report, published by the Further Education Funding Council, has already won the tacit backing of the Government and is set to become a cornerstone, alongside Sir Ron Dearing's report into higher education, due out this month, of the most radical re-evaluation of the post-compulsory education system.

The "Cinderella Service" of further education must no longer be the "13th member of the negotiating table in education", said Ms Kennedy, and must shift to the heart of the Government's post-16 agenda.

Her report highlighted the "backlog of thwarted potential" in the system and urges a radical agenda to widen participation in learning.

Education minister Kim Howells said that the report "points to the shameful inadequacies" of an education system which had created deep social divisions and was thwarting the nation's economic potential.

Ms Kennedy's radical proposals include a dramatic shift of funds to those with the worst qualifications, and a new funding system, based on postcodes, which would favour the socially deprived. Above all, she called for a major injection of cash for further education.

But speaking on Budget day, Ms Kennedy struggled to explain how her sweeping plans would be funded. She was adamant that her agenda would not mean "raiding the coffers of either higher education or school sixth forms", as early drafts of her report had indicated. "I know higher education has suffered badly," she said. "It would be profoundly unhelpful to Britain to remove more of its funds. There is no way we can do that."

But her report clearly attacks a funding regime where "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 the universities". And she calls for the Government to make "tough decisions affecting the gold card of funding for full-time higher education".

She hinted that she would push for higher education tuition fees when Sir Ron Dearing publishes his report, but in the interim she spoke of less tangible funding ideas, like a Pounds 1 billion levy of the National Lottery millennium funds, and a demand for a greater contribution from business.

Kennedy's key recommendations

* Qualifications:

Everyone should achieve qualifications at an advanced level - either two A-levels, a Advanced General National Vocational Qualification or an National Vocational Qualification at level three. Education to this level must be free for the young, and for adults who lack basic skills. Individuals funding their own study to this level should get tax relief. Qualifications should be available through accumulating credits and a credit framework should be implemented within the next five years. National learning targets should be re-set. There should be a national entitlement to advice and guidance.

* Cash:

There should be a national framework for public funding of post-16 learning, as part of an integrated system which also embraces quality assessment, planning and performance measurements. The funding system across the whole further education sector, incorporating both sixth forms and colleges, should be "harmonised". The Further Education Funding Council should divert more of its resources to poorly-qualified people by awarding cash "in inverse proportion to students previous level of achievement" and the poor should be helped by taking into account "relative levels of social deprivation, using post codes". Those who can afford to pay a higher proportion of the costs of their learning should do so. FEFC "above the core" funds could be used to reward widening participation. A national learning fund must be set up from lottery funds.

* Student Support:

A major review of financial support for further education students should be implemented, underpinned by the "principles of fairness and transparency". Restrictions on eligibility should be removed and access funds in the college sector should be "increased significantly". The benefits system should be reformed to make it easier for people to study while they are unemployed. The Government's proposals for individual learning accounts should focus on the implications for widening participation.

* Employers:

Employers must set up "learning centres", linked with the University for Industry. Tax incentives must be offered to the private sector to encourage employee development, and smaller firms must set up in local partnerships to identify openings, which may be eligible for new "learning regeneration funds".

* Partnerships:

There should be a national system of permanent local strategic partnerships, which would be rewarded for widening participation with a "learning regeneration fund". "Regional learning budgets" would be set up from existing regional programmes.

* Stimulation:

It should be a legal obligation for television stations to "educate as well as entertain". The potential for dedicated learning TV channels should be explored and the role of the employment service in promoting learning to the disenfranchised should be developed.

l Information: The FEFC should publish an annual report on participation. The Government should publish annual reports on progress in participation and achievement.

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