'Damaging' overhaul of Norfolk evening classes

Steve DownesThousands of adults who take hobby-based evening classes are facing a big hike in their fees in a move that could have a 'dramatic and damaging effect' on lifelong learning in Norfolk.Steve Downes

Thousands of adults who take hobby-based evening classes are facing a big hike in their fees in a move that could have a 'dramatic and damaging effect' on lifelong learning in Norfolk.

The length of most sessions will also be cut from two hours to one-and-a-half hours as Norfolk County Council's adult education chiefs try to reduce costs ahead of predicted government funding cuts.

Last night, head of service Beverley Evans admitted the changes could trigger a big fall in the number of people accessing the courses, from 8,500 this year to as low as 6,500 in 2010-11.

She said: 'There will be less government funding this year. We believe that we need to look carefully at how we manage the service. We want to survive in a challenging environment and we won't unless we make changes.'

From September, the hourly rate for the leisure classes - including old favourites like life drawing, sugarcraft and pottery - will go up by more than 20pc from between �4.25-4.50 to �5.50.

The review has caused some disquiet, with one tutor angry claiming that users and teachers were not consulted, and only found out about the changes via an internal memo.

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The tutor, who wished to remain anonymous, said: 'Since sessional tutors are only paid according to the actual hours they teach, with lesson preparation and marking included in that, many are facing a dramatic loss of earnings.

'There seems to be a determined effort to make fierce cost cuts from poorly paid tutors at the frontline. This could have a dramatic and damaging effect on the provision of lifelong learning in the county.

'It will leave many learners unhappy and could threaten some courses. We only learned about all this from a memo. There's been no proper discussion or negotiation with tutors.'

He added: 'This is a blow for all sessional tutors but it doesn't seem to have been thought through properly. For some subjects 90 minutes may be fine, for others it just isn't enough, especially where there are practical considerations involved.

'There seems no logic in this one-size-fits-all approach unless they actually want to run down these sorts of courses.'

A thorough review of the leisure classes has happened because of fears that the government will cut grants and focus instead on courses that lead to qualifications.

Ms Evans said the implications for each course had not yet been finalised, with September's adult education programme not being published until July.

She said: 'We receive the majority of our money from the Skills Funding Agency, which used to be the Learning and Skills Council. Leisure classes are a small part of what we get money for. The work is important to us and we are trying to make the grant work well.'

She added that the government's focus was on ensuring that those who could afford to pay for courses would do, while those who could not should get concessionary rates.

'For the coming year, our concessionary rate will increase from 60pc from 50pc. But that causes us to look at our fee structure.'

Ms Evans defended the cut in the length of sessions, saying: 'For some of our classes that run at two or two-and-a-half hours, people might do an hour's intensive work in the classroom, then have a coffee and another chunk of learning. We are looking to see if we can cut out that coffee break and they can learn and go home.'

Another change is that courses will be offered in two semesters of 15 weeks each, rather than the current three-term structure - saving one chunk of administration fees when people sign up.

Ms Evans said the service was also looking at running some courses without a government subsidy, which would mean learners paying more for their sessions.

'If we don't make the best use possible of the grant, we will have less and less to offer. We are trying to keep it going and keep it vibrant.'

The total budget in grants for evening classes is �7m, of which �1m goes to the leisure classes.