For the good of the country

The Kennedy report's call for funding changes to benefit further education is welcomed by many college principals, but they have reservations, they tell Lucy Ward
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The Independent Online
So now the Government has been told. The people who were bottom of the class at school should be catapulted to the very top of Britain's adult education agenda, ahead of talented sixth formers. Yesterday the influential committee, chaired by Helena Kennedy QC, finally reported and dared to challenge the national preoccupation with high achievers in school and university and called for a dramatic shift in policy to focus on people who left school with few or no qualifications.

The main engine powering the drive to reach out to those left by the wayside, the Kennedy committee says, should be further education - the least-understood and still deeply unfashionable division of education after 16.

The committee's report, "Learning Works", urges the Government to back up a new emphasis on tackling under-achievement with hard cash.

Spending must be increased on the three-fifths of the work-force who have not yet achieved A-level standard qualifications, it says. At the moment, the report points out, three out of four post-16 students in England are studying on further education programmes, but only a third of the budget for the age group is spent on them.

The committee, like groups in every sector receiving public funding, has optimistically called on the Government to break its self-imposed spending restrictions and pump more money into its area. In the absence of extra cash, however, it recommends targeting more of existing further education funding towards the learners with the greatest problems, at the expense of those - such as high-flying A-level students - who need less support.

True to further education's reputation as the second-chance sector, it would be a rare college principal indeed who would quarrel with the basic premise underlying the Kennedy report: for the good of the country, both economically and socially, as many people as possible should be educated to as high a standard as possible, with those with the greatest needs receiving the most support.

Indeed colleges, often frustrated by competition with school sixth forms which attract more generous funding, could well benefit from the proposals to even out the playing field. Some smaller sixth forms, currently propped up by cross-subsidy from elsewhere in the school budget, could become unviable and close, Kennedy admits.

College leaders - used to juggling tough budgets - have also swiftly realised a cash switch on the lines recommended by the committee would have its less palatable implications.

The redistribution would effectively take funding from A-level candidates in the leafy suburbs to support learners in the inner- cities and other deprived areas, defined by postcode. Mike Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College in Lancashire, says: "If Kennedy students attract more funding and there is no money to expand then they will displace less lucrative students."

Though Austin believes careful local planning could get round potential problems, other principals are not so sure. Those running sixth form colleges, often excelling in A-level tables, fear redistribution could undermine their unique strength.

Colin Greenhalgh, principal of Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, is full of praise for the Kennedy committee's aims but warns: "We could take two steps forwards and two steps back if we promote widening participation with funding taken from other parts of the sector which are working extremely well in spite of having made exceptional efficiency gains."

Professor Alan Smithers, head of Brunel University's school of education and employment research, points out that the forthcoming Dearing report on the future of higher education is likely to give colleges a key role in delivering degree courses. If further education is encouraged to cater both for undergraduates and those struggling at the other end of the spectrum, he warns, it could lose sight its original mission - to provide high quality technical and vocational education.

Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College - visited by the Kennedy committee - insists the recommendations "do not steal choice but strengthen it". Colleges would not be forced to take the high value "Kennedy students" and could deliberately opt to carry on teaching purely A-level high-fliers if they wished, she argues.

Silver dismisses fears of squeezing traditional FE technical courses. Colleges would retain their role, she says, but would become like the middle runner in a relay race, accepting those struggling the most and providing a clear path through to higher education.

Kennedy, speaking up loud and clear for those adults who "breathed in a sense of failure at school and need every encouragement to come in", is convinced colleges do not need to sacrifice their existing strengths. "This is about broadening," she says. "They have undoubtedly been successful in other areas and I believe they can extend that success to help those who need it most"n

The Kennedy Report - Key Recommendations

Lifelong learning to be a key national priority, with the emphasis on widening as well as increasing participation

A lifetime entitlement for all to education to A-level standard

A major review of student support in further education ensuring fairness for learners throughout post-16 education

Equitable funding for all post-16 education, including colleges, schools and universities

Priority in further education funding to go to people with the fewest qualifications or most deprived backgrounds

A learning regeneration fund, targeting cash at deprived areas

A Learning Nation Fund from Lottery money released after the millennium to tackle the backlog of underachievement

Tax incentives to encourage employers to offer staff education and training

Legislation to oblige all terrestrial TV channels to educate as well as entertain and inform.