Counting the hours

24 Jun 05
MELISSA BENN | Few commented on the coincidence of timing.

Few commented on the coincidence of timing.

But in the week that the government announced plans to introduce ‘wraparound’ schooling, major cuts to the nation’s adult education programme were also unveiled. Press coverage of both was extensive and frequently light-hearted: goodbye, cake decorating and intermediate Italian; hello, early morning muesli and after-school archery.

One conclusion emerges clearly from these two funding announcements. The young remain a top priority, indeed almost an obsession, for our politicians. The so-called ‘Kelly hours’ plan is a classic New Labour initiative. Middle England can welcome private school-style extension of on-site services even as it bemoans the fragmentation of the family. At the same time, it is good for working families desperate for a bit of extra, state-subsidised time at the end of the working day and during the school holidays.

It also fits neatly into the Utopian social inclusion agenda. Get those boys in hoodies down to the local theatre or into a Hatha yoga class now.

But the plan is not as new as it has been made out in some sections of the press. Schools have long offered extracurricular activities. And years before Education Secretary Ruth Kelly hit the headlines, politicians like Margaret Hodge were beavering away on the idea of extended schools.

Mindful perhaps of her vulnerable political position, Kelly’s officials have slapped her name on the current scheme (although frankly I cannot see why anyone would want a unit of time spent away from the family home to be named after them).

But at its dream best, the plan — launched at the remarkable Millfields primary school in Hackney — will make schools the genuine focus of local communities. Children and parents should be able to make use of a range of courses. Social and health workers could provide on-site services,

co-location as it’s known in the trade.

And, in the words of a special 2004 Hay group/Demos report, School’s out, ‘extended schooling can unlock parental energy and commitment, through involvement in their children’s school and education, rather than creating guilt and anxiety’.

If the extended school really draws in all sections of the community, then one of the core aims of public sector modernisation will have been achieved. Such schemes, however, need substantial resources – £680m sounds a lot but it’s not much more than an impressive start-up fund.

Extended schools will eventually have to be at least partially self-sustaining, with talk of a 50:50 split in fees between state and parents. But this might be too costly, especially for low-income parents. Theoretically, they can claim rebates via tax credits, but the system is off-puttingly cumbersome. No surprise then, that experts in after-school provision warn that charging parents for school clubs and classes tends to work best in prosperous areas.

The government is also talking about pooled budgets, in other words drawing in money from other core services. Again, campaigners argue that this could be unwieldy and administratively time-consuming.

So this is an ambitious plan, which, like so many New Labour projects, needs massive injections of money and political commitment. The UK still spends significantly less than the rest of Europe on childcare.

The charity 4Children estimates that for ‘Kelly hours’ to work it would need the government to pledge at least £5bn a year. Even then, parents would have to provide the other £5bn. But, at least, the question of extended school funding is high on the political agenda.

Spare a passing thought , then, for the less visible citizens, some of the 3.5 million users of adult education services who now face a swingeing cut in courses. Heads of adult education colleges had been expecting a 5% rise in funding; they got a 3% cut instead. They have now warned that up to 200,000 places will go.

On one level, one can see why there has been relatively little fuss about these cuts: leisure-based courses do not seem as important as ‘real’ education.

But, I suspect, it is also a question of political demographics. For the past decade or so, the parent has become the dominant citizen in contemporary culture. Hard- working families can do no wrong. Their needs, their desires are paramount.

That’s fair enough, up to a point, but it does suggest a rather restrictive view of education as well as a casual neglect of the needs of those who fit less easily into a ‘desirable voter’ box.

Lifelong learning, another government shibboleth, surely means just that: that we think not just about the school age child and his or her parents. What about the middle-aged autodidact, the doughty pensioner with a thirst for knowledge or even the twenty-something who dropped through the net first time round and rediscovers a passion for learning? Let’s not forget them either.

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