Will the voters come out to save courses?

The axing of up to half a million classes could yet become a political hot potato, reports Nick Jackson

With Labour on the ropes and the Tories still warming up it looks set to be a Lib Dem year in today's local elections. And, perhaps surprisingly, further education is at the heart of the Lib Dems' strategy.

FE rarely gets much political limelight. But a controversial government initiative is drawing fire and, hope the Lib Dems, voters away from Labour.

Under the initiative, basic and level-two training for 16- to 19-year-olds has been given priority funding by the Government, so all such training is free. The aim is necessary enough. At present only 56 per cent of 16-year-olds achieve five A* to C GCSEs or equivalent.

The problem is that, without new funding, colleges are forced to close adult learning courses to cope with the new targets.

The Association of Colleges estimates that 200,000 course places have been lost in the past year because of the reforms and the Department for Education and Skills expects another half a million places to go by 2008. Courses that remain will face price hikes, with some fees doubling, and concessions for over-19s disappearing.

Taking the lead against all this is Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor Vincent Cable. "This is pricing a lot of people out of adult education," he says. "A local college defines the local community. For many people they are a big part of their lives."

Opposition to the reforms brought one concession last week, when it was announced that basic skills courses will once again be fully funded for all ages. But last week Phil Hope, Under-Secretary for Skills, laughed off concerns about non-vocational courses. All that was being asked, he said, was that people doing stand-up comedy and tarot reading classes should pay a little more for them.

Who is benefiting? The answer, say critics of the scheme, is employers. Train to Gain, which came in last month, pays for basic training for 16- to 19-year-olds in work. It is supposed to produce an extra 270,000 course places, but pilot programmes have revealed that up to 85 per cent of these places would have been filled anyway, with employers footing the bill. "Employers are happy to pay for this training but now it's free for them," says Dr Cable. Dr Cable reckons the priority targets are a waste of time. He argues that colleges should decide what courses to run. "Not everyone works on lathes in factories," he says. "This narrow definition of skills is very philistine."

Many further education professionals agree. Christina Conroy is principal of Richmond Adult Community College in Dr Cable's Twickenham constituency. "One man's flower arranging is another's floristry business," she says. A quarter of her students use the skills they have learnt to become self-employed.

Now higher fees are putting students off. Conroy has had to lose classes and cut staff by 20 per cent.

At Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute in north London the Government's new priorities have forced two-thirds of the courses for disabled people to close. More than 600,000 people with learning difficulties and disabilities and more than 300,000 older people are enrolled in adult learning in the UK, many in the kind of non-vocational courses that are threatened by the reforms.

Marjorie Harris, of the institute's governing body, believes we will pay for these cuts in other ways. "In an older community it's a way of keeping people occupied and meeting up socially," she says. "It's been shown time and time again that that helps them stay healthy and keeps them out of care. These courses are worth their weight in gold."

Do voters agree? Harris is also a Lib Dem candidate for Barnet Council. "I can't say it's inspired great excitement," she admits. But, she adds, once the issue is raised people get interested. Harris believes it might just be too soon. "People have taken it so much for granted," she says. "Many don't realise how much this sudden lack of funding will affect them and how much they'll have to pay. Once they've lost it they'll get excited about it."

That may be too late. Once these courses have gone, it will be much more difficult and expensive to replace them than they were to maintain. Something to think about when you are casting your vote today.

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