Positive steps for those in need

Help is on its way for disadvantaged learners. But, says Neil Merrick, much more still needs to be done

Later today, about 50 students will go to the House of Lords to receive bursaries that should ensure they continue in education for at least another two years.

The £1,000 bursaries provided by the Helena Kennedy Foundation are aimed at individuals who overcame disadvantage to gain qualifications at further education colleges or adult learning centres and wish to go on to higher education.

Students receive £500 at the start of their degree and £500 after the first year. More than 100 bursaries were awarded for 2007/8 (there is a further ceremony next Wednesday).

The foundation was set up nearly 10 years ago by former college principal Ann Limb, following the Kennedy Report into widening participation in further education. The report appeared within weeks of Labour coming to power in May 1997 and set the tone for the Government's approach to post-16 learning.

But while the foundation helps to ensure that one of the report's objectives is not forgotten by supporting progression to higher education, the wider picture is less encouraging. In the past few years, ministers have adopted a far narrower focus in further education that means colleges are no longer as accessible to many of those that Kennedy was keen to support.

Government figures show that the number of adults in further education fell last year by 15 per cent to 1.16 million. Numbers in adult and community learning fell by 12 per cent to 315,000. The National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, which last week launched an enquiry into the future of adult learning, estimates that one million learners have been lost over two years – mainly because of rising fees.

Short courses aimed at adults wishing to return to education have virtually disappeared, while it is increasingly difficult to enrol on leisure and foreign language courses. "A lot of the Kennedy curriculum's been wiped out," says Niace's director Alan Tuckett.

Baroness Kennedy, a Labour peer, is disappointed that her report did not become "embedded" within further education. She hopes to use its 10th anniversary to revive many of its values and challenge the Government's policy of focusing on 16- to 19-year-olds, skills-for-life programmes, and young people without Level 2 qualifications.

"We've still not got it right," she says. "Very often the first steps taken by people coming back into education are tentative steps. They are not based around academic subjects."

Baroness Kennedy accepts that colleges should equip people with job skills, but regrets that other courses have been swept aside. "It's precisely these things that Gordon Brown should be looking at if he is talking about creating a just society," she adds.

Whereas three years ago, adults were only required to pay a quarter of the cost of courses that attract government subsidy, fees now account for 37.5 per cent. By 2010/11, learners will be expected to fund half the course costs.

The Niace enquiry will look at issues such as reducing poverty as well as the thorny question of public funding. "We need a new settlement between individuals, employers and the State," says Tuckett.

More bad news could be looming for lone parents who study while claiming income support. A recent Green Paper on welfare reform recommended that they should switch to job-seeker's allowance and be available for work.

Tim Nichols, parliamentary officer at the Child Poverty Action Group, says that because of this there is a danger of lone parents being pushed into low-paid jobs rather than completing courses. "The availability-for-work tests mean that you should not be studying."

Isabel Pinto, who received a Kennedy Foundation bursary while taking a radiography degree at London's South Bank University, says the Government should encourage women to study. Pinto worked part-time to help fund her course but doubts if she would have completed it without the bursary. "It wasn't an awful lot of money but it gave me some support," she says.

In spite of the abolition of up-front tuition fees in higher education, the foundation still turns away hundreds of applications each year. Ann Limb regrets that it cannot offer more bursaries. "I don't think we should have to choose between social inclusion and skills. They are part of the same agenda," she says.