The high quality of adult education provision highlighted in the inspectorate’s annual report is a strong argument for rebalancing funding in their favour, says Sue Pember

This year’s Ofsted chief inspector’s report highlights how successful our community learning and skills providers are. They are the hidden gems of the adult education system and are leading the FE sector, with 88% rated ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ – up from 83% last year. 

Redbridge Adult Education Institute is a great example of high-quality provision. This year, it received one of the best outstanding reports possible, with inspectors commenting that there were no areas requiring development, along with something you don’t often see in an Ofsted report: “the students were having fun”!

The annual report highlighted high-quality training in mentoring and counselling for learners recovering from drug and alcohol misuse; ESOL courses to help refugees and nurses recruited from overseas to improve their spoken English; family learning courses for parents so that they can better support their children at school; programmes that focus on developing employment skills for learners with learning disabilities; and work with the police service to help learners remove themselves from gang culture.

It’s great to see Ofsted recognising the amazing work done by the 200-plus community education providers. Annually they educate over 650,000 learners, concentrating on working with those furthest away from the workplace and/or at risk of being isolated from society. Their learners are very satisfied with their courses – in the recent national learner choices survey, 93% of adult and community learners said they were “likely” or “very likely” to recommend their learning provider, compared to 78% for rest of the sector.

While concentrating on their core mission, they provide a wide range of learner-led programmes and utilise all the Adult Education Budget funding streams, plus the apprenticeship levy and non-levy funding, ESF and FE loans. They also provide financial support to learners with a co-funding and full-cost approach to collection of fees.

Of the 17 providers that improved to good this year, inspectors found that the most common areas of improvement were quality of teaching, learning and assessment; strengthened governance arrangements; more effective management of subcontractors; and raised expectations and aspirations for learners.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that adult learning providers have maintained and even improved quality, while responding to a 40% decrease in funding over the last 10 years. Even in this uncomfortable funding environment, which has led to a decrease in participation, with 1.5 million learning places lost over the last seven years, community education services have proved their worth, their ability to provide quality provision and to remain in budget.

This funding imbalance needs to change

Adult learning providers are keen to grow their offer, but they have been stifled by the present funding system, which does not include a mechanism for substantial growth. They want to support their local learners and are hoping the post-18 review of funding will recognise that a static funding system based on historical allocation is no longer appropriate – and that most learners with skill levels below level 2 want to go to local neighbourhood provision.

The most inexcusable figures to come out from our work on post-18 funding is that only 1% of all post-18 spend is used to support adult learners who want to learn in their community, and only 7% is spent on those who didn’t do well at school. This funding imbalance needs to change, and our excellent adult education services should be allowed to grow and meet future need.

What is needed is a responsive funding system that recognises providers who perform well and deliver what learners want. As the inspectorate has highlighted, most of these community services are in local authorities and therefore find it easy to work in partnership with other services like housing and health.

They are ready to take up the challenge of supporting the one in five of the population who have literacy or numeracy issues and the many who need ESOL to support their full integration into the community and work. They are also keen to support the national retraining scheme and the digital agenda and are well placed to do this.

Their students often have the greatest life challenges and require concentrated effort to help them back into learning. They also support wider government policies on stronger families, digital skills, social mobility and mental health. Learning often takes place in community settings, such as primary schools, church halls, libraries and community centres and, because many of the services are not concentrated around one site, they are very agile and can quickly respond to specific community needs.
 
The chief inspector’s report highlights the effectiveness and ability of community education services and the time is now right for the post-18 funding review to recommend a rebalancing of the post-18 spend, and to invest in those adults most in need of upskilling.