John Brennan: Let's not forget the needs of older learners

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I'm sure our new Education Secretary Ruth Kelly had a busy Christmas reading herself into her new brief.

I'm sure our new Education Secretary Ruth Kelly had a busy Christmas reading herself into her new brief. I wish her well in the new job, but I hope she has managed to find some time to consider the big issues facing further education because her predecessor, Charles Clarke, has left the sector in a difficult position with regard to future funding.

And Kelly has also inherited a review of the sector, though as a Treasury minister until last summer, she may have been familiar with some of these issues.

Her first major statement will be a White Paper, expected next month. Colleges hope that she will then commit herself to Mike Tomlinson's proposals for reform of the curriculum for 14 to 19 year olds. With less fanfare, she is also due to receive a report in March from the Learning and Skills Council into the future funding of the sector.

There are two big problems. First, universities and schools have been guaranteed a big slice of the education funding cake, leaving too little for colleges. And second, most of the money for colleges has been earmarked for Government priorities, creating a new class of disadvantaged learner.

Evidence is growing that some of the biggest losers in this funding lottery are pensioners. They face higher fees for courses - in languages, computing or crafts - that keep their minds active. Yet a recent ICM survey found that 82 per cent of the public believes such courses should be free to pensioners.

Half a million of those who study at further education colleges are older than 50, and 150,000 of them are over 60. It is not so long since government ministers were celebrating the achievements of older learners. But now they could find themselves typically paying 40 per cent more for courses.

I can understand why the Government believes it is important to focus on the basic skills of younger adults, and we certainly share Tomlinson's ambitions for 14 to 19 year olds. And, if asked, it is true that many older people would see their own education and training as less important than that of young people. But surely as a society we can also see the social and health benefits of providing affordable courses in areas which may not lead directly to a new job, but which keep the mind and body active and healthy. With an ageing population and workforce, it is imperative we tackle the retraining needs of our older workers, as much as those of younger people.

At a practical level, the cuts can have a devastating effect on communities, not least in rural areas. How many "silver surfers" on a fixed pension could afford the increase in fees that Wiltshire College had to impose on its computer classes in local village halls? The college had to increase course fees from £40 to £110 per person because it received no national priority funding and was regarded as "unprofitable".

"It is likely that only one of the 12 villages will feel able to continue," fears George Bright, the college principal. "We regret having to withdraw provision we had introduced - it is yet another loss of services to rural areas." Other colleges, such as Colchester Institute, have had to cut the number of places they provide for mature students in favour of young people. Colchester expects hundreds of full-time places will go.

When Labour was elected in 1997, it signalled a wholly welcome new emphasis on lifelong learning. Ministers extolled the benefits of education for people of all ages. It is surely no less vital now that, in the drive to improve skills and training for younger people, the needs of an older generation are not forgotten.

The author is chief executive of the Association of Colleges