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Norfolk adult education plans condemned

PUBLISHED: 09:00 06 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:58 22 October 2010

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Controversial plans to increase charges for adult education courses and transport fees for college students were last night condemned as an attack on the aspirations of people in Norfolk.

Controversial plans to increase charges for adult education courses and transport fees for college students were last night condemned as an attack on the aspirations of people in Norfolk.

Norfolk County Council is set axe hundreds of courses, raise fees and shed dozens of jobs as it seeks to save a £1m a year from the adult education budget - having spent £350,000 for advice from consultants Cannizaro about how best to reorganise the department.

The authority is looking to scrap 43 full time equivalent posts and close five of its nine administration offices, although the final head count could be much higher as many of the staff are part-time.

Meanwhile, the council's ruling cabinet yesterday agreed to canvass the public on much-criticised moves for a 50pc cut in travel subsidies for post-16 students.

The Tory-led administration insisted the moves were needed to help tackle a looming £25m shortfall in the finances next year following poor funding settlements from central government.

But after the meeting, Irene Macdonald, the council's Labour group leader, accused the Conservatives of launching a twin attack on learning which would hit thousands of people.

And there was anger that the cabinet dropped plans to phase in any changes in fee levels for students - with existing students still at college in September 2007 also subject to the proposals.

“The opportunities for learning in Norfolk are getting worse by the minute,” she said. “We have a crisis in the adult education budget which has been going on for months with still no end in site.

“Adults will most likely have to pay more for less with shorter courses and less choice. Some areas of the county will get nothing beyond the very basics.

“Young people and their families have the spectre of having to pay more even to access education and this is bound to deter some from even thinking about going on to sixth form or higher education.”

Barbara Hacker, Lib Dem group leader said the council was sending out a “mixed message” on education and attainment.

“We say we want to raise aspirations but seem to be doing everything we can to prevent education and learning,” she said. “We are a low aspiration county and we have a low stay on rate,” she added. “We must be investing in the children not looking at them as a cost.”

Adult education has faced a double financial problem brought about by more emphasis on vocational courses by its main funding body, the Learning and Skills Council, and poor financial planning within the department that led to a £1.5m overspend.

John Gretton, cabinet member for cultural services, said users would be able to book courses through the council's customer call centre. Greater use would also be made of library and mobile library staff.

There would be more emphasis on vocational courses aimed at those wishing to pursue careers in accountancy or teaching assistants.

But there would be an 8pc cut in the 3500 courses currently run - or up to 200 classes, including IT. Course lengths will also be shortened to 10 weeks while fees would rise.

“What we are going to do is charge a realistic fee level for them,” he said. “My view is that if people are doing a course such as flower arranging or life drawing which doesn't lead to a qualification and they are able to afford it, I don't have a problem charging a realistic fee for them.”

Tutors may also be encouraged to become self-employed and the 20pc concession to the over 60s could also go.

“We are going to emerge from it with a fitter and leaner service, but in many ways a strengthened service,” Mr Gretton said. “We just thought that we needed the lash of management efficiency, which we haven't looked at before.

“We have got 30,000 learners and I don't expect to have significantly fewer than that in future. Service users wouldn't necessarily notice very much difference. I don't see it frightening the public.

“A lot of this is backroom stuff that needn't particularly worry the sort of person that's going to be doing a course with us.”

Staff and unions are currently being consulted on the changes that would leave Wensum Lodge in Norwich as the department's new headquarters. There would be area offices in King's Lynn, North Walsham and a new site due to open shortly in Attleborough.

Rosalie Monbiot, cabinet member for children's services told yesterday's meeting the post-16 transport plans balanced the need to make savings and encourage youngsters to stay on.

Business and pensioners' groups will also be asked for their views on the amount of subsidy paid by council taxpayers towards college transport.

And the administration was working hard to reverse the trend on underachieving.

“We want to get a representative view from the families of students and educational establishments but we also need to get the view from the council taxpayers who currently subsidise this service very generously,” she said. “I'm sorry that the students think we are shortchanging them, but we are giving them increased time for consultation.

“We can in time shake off Norfolk's now undeserved reputation for under achievement,” she added.


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