More needs to be done to support low-income further education learners in Wales

Poverty Group of people studying
Photo by Keira Burton: Pexels
ResourcesViewsMay 31st, 2023

ColegauCymru Chief Executive, David Hagendyk, highlights the challenges facing both learners and the wider sector right now and details how we can work together to help ease the pressure.

Around one in three children in Wales are now living in poverty. This is 31% of children, around 190,000 under the age of 19. These figures are stark, and poverty levels remain stubbornly high. As society continues to recover from the impact of Covid19 and the pressures of increasing inflation, the FE sector is continuing to do everything it can to support those in lower income households.

In March this year, the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language acknowledged the impact of poverty on attainment, and highlighted that attainment gaps between children and young people affected by poverty and their peers has worsened. He also outlined his commitment to tackling the issue, with a whole government approach. Given the cross-cutting nature of poverty, this approach is welcomed. Welsh Government is embarking on refreshing the Child Poverty Strategy to reduce child poverty, implementing various measures to support families, but more needs to be done to address the impact of eye-watering poverty levels in Wales.

Reducing costs and maximising the income of families is critical so that children and young people have enough financial and material support for what they need to thrive in an education setting.

The increasing pressures of the cost-of-living crisis have magnified the challenges faced by learners, especially acute for those lower socio-economic demographics.

These issues are felt keenly right across the FE sector, and were raised by ColegauCymru Strategic Work-based learning Lead and Principal of Pembrokeshire College at a Senedd Committee hearing last November. Dr Barry Walters spoke of the increased costs of everyday essentials, including transport and food, and the debilitating effect it is having on learners. He added that learners are increasingly relying on the sector’s Financial Contingency Fund (FCF), with the previous 12 months having seen a considerable increase on requests to that funding pot.

ColegauCymru welcomes the changes made recently to support individuals participating in the Jobs Growth Wales Plus (JGW+) Programme. These changes have seen a modest increase to the Training Allowance for participants, and the introduction of financial support to offer a ‘free meal’ whilst on programme. As the JGW+ Programme aims to assist those most marginalised in society, this type of practical support should be built into existing and future programmes.

The need for additional support

For the greatest impact, we believe the government’s focus should be on:

  • Reviewing the eligibility threshold of free school meals and Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) A significant number of learners fall just outside the threshold and therefore don’t qualify for EMA support. Eligibility criteria such as multiple children within the family should also be considered.
  • Urgently reviewing the availability of free or subsidised transport and food costs Some families are currently having to use the EMA to subsidise food and transport costs. Additional support will ensure EMA payments go directly towards education costs. A review of transport parameters is also needed.
  • Reviewing financial contingency support designed to support learners in financial difficulty and/or likely to leave education, colleges are increasingly relying on the FCF.

Looking to the future

Colleges are committed to working in partnership with government and other organisations to take action to help offset the negative impact of the acute financial challenges facing so many learners. Colleges are together to improve the availability of education around budgeting and debt cancelling services, and provide better signposting to external support. There is more to do. This could include:

  • Incentivising learners to remain in education Additional incentives to support learners of all ages to remain in post-compulsory education through this acutely challenging financial period. Some learners are opting to leave education, in favour of taking low paid employment to support themselves and their families.
  • Developing creative curriculum design solutions Colleges are committed to continual improvement to curriculum design, and where possible, giving learners the flexibility they need to be able to work part time alongside their studies.
  • Reducing the risk of exploitation The more pressure a family has, the more likely they are to be victims of exploitation. Educating families and staff on risks and signposting support is vital.
  • Identifying further training Support staff and tutors can benefit from training on what help is available and to signpost learners as needed.
  • Ending the stigma Learners often feel there’s a stigma around applying for EMA or FCF which is a barrier to access.

ColegauCymru believes that all learners have the right to world-class education, delivered in a safe, diverse and inclusive setting and within a sector which supports the wider community, employers and the economy. Colleges are committed to supporting family wellbeing and making sure that everything they do delivers for all learners, especially children, young people and adults in poverty, including those with protected characteristics, so that they can enjoy their rights and have better outcomes. We must ensure that all learners are treated with dignity and respect by the people and services who interact with and support them, and challenging the stigma of poverty.

David Hagendyk has worked in leadership, campaigning and policy development roles in Wales for the last 18 years. He joined ColegauCymru in October 2022, having spent seven years at the Learning and Work Institute Cymru as the Director for Wales.

Before joining L&WI, he also worked for seven years as the General Secretary of Welsh Labour. Prior to this he was the Political Liaison Officer for the University and College Union Cymru, as the Welsh Labour Head of Policy, and has worked as a researcher for Huw Lewis AM and Lynne Neagle AM.

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