Select Committee on Education and Skills Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary note on post-16 Learner Support


  1.  This note adds to the evidence previously submitted to the Committee in connection with its inquiry into further education, and provides additional information for the Committee on the subject of learner support, to assist in its further examination of these issues.


  2.  Learners seeking to continue in learning post-16 face a variety of barriers which need to be surmounted if the intended learning goals are to be achieved. Although financial barriers are by no means the sole obstacle—poor motivation arising from negative experiences in the past will be important for some, while practical problems such as finding time for learning, organising transport or child care will predominate for others—for most learners the costs associated with learning are significant. Although much less systematic research has been undertaken into the costs of learning at further education level than in higher education, the evidence available makes clear both that the types of costs are similar (accommodation, living costs, transport, child care, books, equipment, and so on), and that overall levels of expenditure are broadly the same, regardless of academic level.

  3.  In the belief of the Association, the existence of such financial barriers is an important inhibitor of participation of learning post 16 at all levels, especially among those from less affluent social groups. The differences in participation among different social classes which are well documented in higher education are already apparent in the 16-19 phase. There can be little doubt that financial factors play an important role in determining whether a student stays on in learning post-16. In the view of the Association, the lack of any systematic support to encourage continuation in learning for young people from poorer families is both an obstacle to increasing participation in the 16-19 phase, and has longer-term effects on attitudes to learning which inhibit both the acquisition of skills and progression into higher education. It believes that without a more effective system of support for both adults and young people, the twin objectives of raising participation in higher education to 50 per cent of those under 30 by 2010 and of raising skill levels in the work force may not be achievable.


  4.  One of the consequences of the lack of effective financial support has been a rise in part-time employment among full-time students. Youth cohort survey data shows that over two fifths of 16 year olds and around three fifths of 17 year olds hold part-time or casual jobs. While the majority work less than 10 hours per week, some 25 per cent work in excess of 16 hours. While there are undoubtedly educational as well as financial and lifestyle benefits for young people through working, the evidence shows that those without jobs typically spend longer on study. More worryingly, it is clear that those undertaking substantial amounts of work are likely to gain poorer examination grades.

  5.  Full-time adult learners face similar difficulties, and it is noticeable that after growing through the 1980s and early 1990s enrolments among this group have fallen in recent years. The issues facing part-time adult learners are more varied. For work-based learners, the practical problems of combining study with work, social and family commitments are frequently the major issues, but financial pressures may be considerable, especially for younger adults seeking to acquire the skills and qualifications to underpin their careers. For others, financial pressures may be more critical to participation. While some groups—such as those eligible for New Deal—may receive significant levels of financial support while learning, the limited resources available overall will in most cases mean that support is both limited and thinly spread (for example, only some 5 per cent of students received Access Fund support in 1999-2000).


  6.  LSC has now announced the allocation of learner support funds for the post-16 sector for 2002-03. A total of £134.4 million is being made available to support students in colleges and schools. Of this total £117.1 million is delegated to colleges (with £9.4 million earmarked for residential bursaries, and £36.4 million for childcare, with the balance of £71.3 million for general Access Funds), and £10.7 million for school sixth form Access Funds. Of the balance, £1.5 million is to pilot a new approach to child care for those in school sixth forms and sixth form colleges (to be managed by local LSCs), and £10 million for support for students attending Centres of Vocational Excellence on a residential basis. Of the overall total, £51.9 million is allocated for 16-19 year olds, and £82.5 million for adult learners.

  7.  Access Funds have been growing rapidly over the last few years, largely as a result of the transfer of funds from the former LEA discretionary awards system into college allocations. Patterns of expenditure are consequently changing, but in 1999-2000 just over 100,000 awards were made to 16-18 year olds, with an average level of award of about £160. Around half of expenditure went on transport/accommodation, and about a third on fees/books and equipment. For adults some 170,000 awards were made, with an average cost of about £140. Nearly half of the expenditure went on fees/books/equipment, and about one quarter on transport/accommodation. Average grants for childcare were around £650.

  8.  In addition, DfES has allocated some £156 million in the current year for continuation of the EMA pilot schemes. Of this some three fifths is attributable to students in further education colleges.

  9.  In total, therefore, current expenditure on FE learner support in 2002-03 will be in the region of £220-230 million. While this is undoubtedly an improvement on the levels prevailing in the late 1990s, it needs to be recognised that in real terms expenditure is not greatly different from that prevailing at the beginning of the last decade, despite the rapid expansion in enrolments since then. In 1992-93 for example, LEA expenditure on FE discretionary awards amounted to some £170 million, and since then price levels have risen by close to 30 per cent. Moreover, within the overall sum there has been a marked shift in favour of young people—largely as a consequence of the introduction of EMAs.


  10.  The Committee will be familiar with the main features of the EMA pilot schemes. DfES has published a number of research reports from the initial evaluation of the EMA pilots. Key points to emerge to date include:

    —  EMAs have raised participation in education. After controlling for variations in the characteristics of individuals in different areas, initial estimates suggest gains in participation across the pilot areas ranging from 3 per cent to 11 per cent, with an average gain of around 5 per cent;

    —  the scheme has a greater impact on young men than young women, in rural areas, and among those eligible for a full allowance;

    —  the scheme appears to be successful in attracting more of those with lower qualifications to stay on post-16;

    —  EMAs are spent mainly on living costs, transport, books and equipment, and personal items such as clothing; overall they are not supplementing spending on entertainment;

    —  but the movement of individual students between pilot and non-pilot areas has created considerable inconsistency in the levels of support available to students following the same courses within institutions.

  11.  AoC has been collecting additional information on the impact of EMAs. Although as yet the sample is limited, some initial points to emerge from this include:

    —  take up of EMAs is much higher among college students than among those in schools (with over 60 per cent of allowance holders attending college);

    —  EMAs support learner choice, with a higher proportion of students attending colleges outside their immediate LEA area;

    —  a higher proportion of college students receive the maximum allowance—about 80 per cent of those attending college compared with under 70 per cent of those in schools;

    —  possession of an EMA appears to improve attendance (one college reports 91 per cent attendance among EMA holders compared with 81 per cent for those without an EMA); and

    —  it also appears to improve retention (by some 18 per cent in one college and 9 per cent in another).

  12.  It remains the view of AoC that an early national roll-out of the EMA scheme must be a priority, in the interests both of widening participation and of removing geographical inequality. In its submission to the current spending review it is estimated the likely cost of such a scheme as being in the region of £500 million per annum, depending upon the precise variant adopted. In line with the recommendations of the previous Education and Employment Committee, and with the indications from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if EMAs were successful the Government would consider reform of child benefit, it has proposed that the costs be met from a restructuring of child benefit for 16 and 17 year olds.


  13.  The availability of convenient and affordable transport remains a crucial determinant of access to learning. As pointed out previously, the current duties on LEAs to assist with student transport are vague and easily bypassed. Under financial pressures in the 1980s and 1990s, many LEAs cut back on their support for student transport, and in doing so forced colleges to shoulder an increasing share of the burden. DfES has recognised the difficulties this has placed on colleges, and has taken a number of initiatives aimed at addressing these issues, including commissioning a substantial study of the complexities of current arrangements. It has also proposed, through the Education Bill now undergoing Parliamentary scrutiny, reform of existing legislation aimed at strengthening the duties on LEAs as far as 16-18 year olds are concerned and at improving the co-ordination of transport provision. The Association welcomes these moves, and will be working with DfES, LEAs and colleges to improve the support available to learners. It remains concerned, however, that the new approach will do little to address the problems facing adult learners, and will be seeking to encourage Government to develop these initiatives further.


  14.  While welcoming the reforms in learner support introduced since 1997, the Association remains concerned that assistance for adult learners has declined substantially over the last decade. As noted above, some £82.5 million of the total learner support funds provided by LSC for the coming year is allocated for adult learners. This compares with around £120 million allocated for adult learner support by LEAs in 1992-93 under the previous discretionary awards scheme: in real terms therefore expenditure on adult student support is now little more than half that of a decade ago.

  15.  The Association regrets also that in initiating a review of support for higher education students last summer, the Government did not extend the scope of the review to cover learners in further education. It would note that far greater levels of support are available for those in higher education—in excess of £1.8 billion in loans (at a resource cost of about half that figure), and some £91 million in HE Access Funds in 2001-02, for a student population which in full-time equivalent terms is only slightly greater than that in further education. It believes that if widening participation in both FE and HE, and in particular if the Government's target of 50 per cent participation in HE among those under 30 by 2010, are to be achieved, present inequalities in support must be tackled at an early stage.

  16.  The Association has made clear that it accepts there is a case for the introduction of loans—repayable on an income contingent basis, as with HE—for adult students studying below HE level, on the principle that the beneficiaries of learning should make some contribution towards the investment involved. It would note however, the validity of that case rests on the return which can reasonably be expected from the additional skills and knowledge acquired. There is considerable evidence that for qualifications at level 2 and below the returns are too low to make repayment a realistic proposition. Accordingly it supported the recommendation of the National Skills Task Force that learning up to a first level 2 qualification should be free, and believes that learner support and fee remission policies should be shaped around this principle. It has been pleased to note the modest encouragement to that approach which Government has given to date, and looks forward to further progress in this direction.

  17.  In particular, the Association welcomes the initiative originally announced in the Pre-Budget Report 2001, and confirmed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget last month, to launch a number of pilot initiatives to test out various models for the encouragement of work based learning, through a combination of paid time off for training for employees and financial incentives for employers to cover training costs. The Association looks forward to working with LSC in the development of these schemes.


  18.  In restructuring learner support the Government has given much greater emphasis than previously to the provision of childcare, and has linked this to its wider policies for the development of high quality childcare provision. The Association has welcomed the recognition this has brought to the importance of childcare in facilitating widening participation, especially among women who have had few opportunities to participate in education. Inter alia it has encouraged many more colleges to develop facilities of their own to meet student and staff needs. It is however, evident that there remain problems. Despite the stimulus to the expansion of provision, the availability of high quality childcare facilities, accessible on terms which reflect the needs of learners, is inadequate in many areas, and potential learners disadvantaged. At the same time, although the rules on the utilisation of college funs have been made more flexible, the high costs of childcare often mean it is difficult to meet learner needs in full.


  19.  The Association has already submitted separately to the Committee its evidence on college experience of the ILA scheme, as part of the inquiry into the premature closure of the scheme. In the context of the present inquiry it would however wish to reinforce its belief in the value of the ILA concept. In particular, it remains of the view that a new version of the ILA offers considerable potential both as a motivator for learning and as a vehicle for channelling aspects of learner support, such as tuition fees and assistance with transport, child care and other costs.


  20.  In support of this approach the Association has recommended within its submission to the current spending review that provision should be made in 2004-05 and 2005-06 for improvements in adult learner support in further education, built around:

    (a)  an increase in college access and childcare funds of £20 million in the first year rising to £40 million in the second;

    (b)  the development of a replacement for the ILA scheme, through which elements of learner support can be channelled;

    (c)  the introduction of a pilot scheme of income contingent loans for level 3 study, with an allocation of £20 million in the first instance.


  21.  The Association will be happy to expand on these issues if that would be helpful to the Committee.

Association of Colleges

May 2002

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