The number of enrolments onto adult education courses in the months following lockdown dropped by half compared to the same period last year.

Figures published this morning by the Department for Education shows there were 208,790 starts on adult programmes between 23 March and 31 July 2020 compared to 420,910 in that period in 2018/19 – a 50.4 per cent fall.

Stats for the whole of 2019/20 shows there were 1,042,000 adult education budget enrolments – a 20 per cent drop on the 1,302,700 achieved the previous year.

Under performance against AEB contracts will be of concern to individual colleges and training providers following an Education and Skills Funding Agency warning that they will clawback funds if less than 68 per cent of their allocation has been delivered in 2019/20 despite the pandemic.

The agency first told the sector in March that they would not force repayment of AEB funds this year owing to Covid-19 but has since changed its mind.

Speaking at a Public Accounts Committee hearing this morning on the financial sustainability of colleges, ESFA chief executive Eileen Milner revealed that when the agency proposed to not take clawback they had “quite a lot of correspondence from colleges who felt it was unfair and a disincentive in fact to not take money back for underperformance”.

“We are walking a tight line between understanding the particular circumstances and at the same time being able to fulfil that reasonable test of spending public money,” she said.

Milner told the committee that the agency is currently looking “carefully” at a “very small number of colleges” that have so far flagged they want to put a business case in to keep their full allocation despite underperformance, and it is “only then that we will consider taking money back”.

She added that the agency is doing this through “conversation and opportunity, not by bureaucratic approach to seizing money from people”.

After the agency announced in March it would not clawback unspent AEB funds for the last academic year, it changed its mind in July and announced that providers would retain their full 2019/20 allocation only if they attempted to continue delivering during lockdown and they delivered 80 per cent of activity in the whole year.

Following a sector backlash, the ESFA withdrew these plans one week later. But then, in September, the agency backtracked again and said it would “consider reconciling any under delivery up to 68 per cent” unless the provider can justify why they shouldn’t by submitting a business case.

It means that, for example, if a provider’s performance was 60 per cent then the agency will consider recovering 8 per cent of the allocation.