From education to employment

As the spending review undermines adult education, what can we learn from the social entrepreneur Michael Young?

There has been a lot of discussion about the likely impact of the spending review on both the HE and FE Sectors. NIACE has emphasised the likely unintended consequence that fewer adults, from a narrower range of backgrounds, will be able to afford, or have the desire, to study for higher-level qualifications. It has urged the government to ensure that the increased competition does not have a negative impact on access for part-time and adult students.

We could add to NIACE’s response the need to recognize the vital role played by the voluntary sector in opening new doors and keeping opportunities for access open.

The actions of this government have already endangered vital work and organisations that are not easily replaceable. It feels like they are engaging in a slash and burn exercise with no eye to the future. Surely some of this damage could be avoided if we could take better decisions now. The National Extension College [NEC] provides a good example of a voluntary organisation, which was nearly destroyed by slashing and burning but fortunately has risen like a phoenix from the ashes!

NEC is one of those voluntary, non profit making organisations that has played a unique role, over 50 years, in extending flexible and affordable access to accredited GSCE, A level and vocational courses to learners who might otherwise have no access or a second chance at all.

The merger between NEC and the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) in July 2010 seemed to be a marriage made in heaven. The trustees of both NEC and LSN identified the legacy of Michael Young as an integral part of the mission and values of the merged charity. However friends and supporters of NEC were not convinced and campaigned vigorously to prevent the acquisition of NEC by LSN. Their fears that LSN’s main interest in NEC was to asset strip the College were proved to be correct. LSN’s promises to invest in NEC did not materialise and the Charity put NEC’s Cambridge site ,The Michael Young Centre , up for sale in the summer of 2011. It was sold to Homerton College in October just three weeks before LSN went into administration on 3 November.

Since then The Open School Trust, a charity originally set up by Michael Young, partnered by NIACE, has been working hard to get NEC out of administration.

They were and remain convinced that NEC has an important role to play in providing second chance education for all of those people who have missed out for any reason.

The Open School Trust and NIACE put in a successful bid to the administrators PWC to take over the running of the College. The contract was signed just before Christmas on 16 December.

The past few months have been very difficult for NEC, its staff and students. We are overwhelmed by all the support we have received from the sector and especially from NIACE and learndirect. It is now time to move on, to look forward and concentrate on rebuilding the College. It is going to be tough but with all the support we have been offered , I am sure we can do it.

Ros Morpeth is a former CEO of NEC and chair of trustees of the Open School

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