Small training providers like the Friends Centre in Brighton are struggling under the current AEB uncertainty, writes Helen Osborne
The recent partial invitation to tender for the Adult Education Budget has been going on a long time, and the announcement has been put back again.
There are plenty of unintended consequences which seem not to be understood by the ESFA: the process has brought tremendous uncertainty and will leave many thousands of adults unable to receive the provision they need.
The Friends Centre is an adult education organisation based in Brighton, established in 1945 and supporting approximately 1,100 learners each year.
The majority of our learners are involved in English as a second language, while we also offer courses in English, maths, fashion and art. We work closely with children’s centres, primary schools and community hubs to extend our offer out from our central locations, and in January 2017, we achieved a rating of ‘good’ from our Ofsted inspection. Ninety-three per cent of learners achieved qualifications and we had an 88 per cent retention rate in 2015/16.
We are hugely affected by the current funding uncertainties
We are a place where learners can study and grow in confidence. One learner started with us on a day course called ‘Get to know your sewing machine’ having never done anything with a machine since school. She really got a buzz out of making and went on to set up a sewing club which hosts independent, community sewing festivals in Brighton as well as the Brighton Sewing Bee.
Another of our learners, Sayid, comes from Syria and was referred to us by the Job Centre in Brighton. He started studying on an Entry 2 ESOL writing course, and has since progressed to a level one speaking and listening course. He said the following:
“When I came here, I could not speak or read the English language. I was in a bad situation and I was miserable. Then after I registered at the Friends Centre I felt better and felt like my life had started again. I passed the theory test for my driving licence in the English language on Dec 7 2016, then I passed the driving test and have now found work as a delivery driver.”
Each year we have a thousand success stories like these to tell. We wish to ensure we continue to serve new learners in the next academic year and beyond, but we are hugely affected by the current funding uncertainties. As a training provider (a designation that is itself an issue) we were required to go through a procurement exercise and, in common with many others, we still do not know whether we can offer any service to learners from September.
Decisions were initially delayed due to the election purdah, but uncertainty remains in the form of a three-month contract to October 2017. We are currently re-enrolling learners – many of them vulnerable members of the local community – for programmes next year and during this period will interview and enrol new learners, even though we may not be able to offer them courses.
These courses will only just be starting in mid-September and will either run to December or to July next year. Funding uncertainties call into question not only our provision, but the future for our learners and staff. We have to continue to advertise and enrol learners or we will lose them and consequently fail to meet funding targets later in the year.
We want to keep our ‘good’ status from Ofsted and to continue to meet the needs of our learners, but to remain in line with guidance we need to plan, offer sound advice and provide pre-course assessment, and we need to advertise our courses, produce an annual prospectus and promote our courses, all of which is very difficult when we only have assured funding till October.
Helen Osborne is head of the Friends Centre in Brighton