Colleges have called on the prime minister to intervene in the government’s “devastating” adult education clawback plans that risk courses being scrapped and redundancies.

In a letter today, Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes tells Boris Johnson that his “ambitious” lifelong learning agenda will be damaged by the Department for Education’s and Treasury’s “dysfunctional” regulation and accountability regime for colleges.

He warns that the “confidence” of college leaders that positive change is coming has been hit by the decision being taken “so late in the year and which simply does not appreciate the overall position, challenges and potential of colleges”.

Separately, Hughes has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson today to warn the clawback will “reduce the financial strength of colleges, move a large number into financial intervention, and force colleges to reduce capacity for adult education, just as demand will be increasing”.

He has included three case studies that show how individual colleges will have to repay millions of pounds under the plans, explaining the reasons why they have not been able to deliver against their targets and the real impacts the “uniform approach” risks having.

Furness College, for example, expects to deliver only half of its £1.3 million allocation as the vast majority of its adult provision is in technical training, such as welding, electrical engineering and construction skills, which was “impossible to deliver” during lockdown.

The college now faces having to pay back £640,000 which would result in a budget deficit at the end of July. Principal Andrew Wren says this will inevitably necessitate a review for “operational efficiencies” over the summer and the college will “not be able to offer the same volume of training in future years”.

He added that the decision will cause colleges across England to “reduce capacity for adult skills which is entirely at odds with the country’s longer-term needs”.

Around £50 million of college funding is at risk nationally, the AoC estimates.

The letters have been published ahead of a Westminster Hall debate this afternoon where MPs will discuss the future of adult education.


‘I cannot stress enough how devastating this decision will be’

Announced last month, the clawback decision means that any college that delivers less than 90 per cent of their national adult education allocation must repay the difference between that threshold and their actual delivery.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency claimed this threshold, much higher than the 68 per cent set for last year, is a “fair representation of grant funded providers’ average delivery” in 2020/21.

But as FE Week previously exclusively revealed, the threshold was demanded by the Treasury after officials successfully argued colleges had enough time to reorientate provision and run courses online, where needed, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

On top of this, the ESFA has ruled out a business case process whereby colleges could put forward reasons as to why they should cling on to the money if they did not reach the threshold.

Hughes says business cases would be a “simple solution” for fairness in his letter to Williamson and pleads for the ESFA to allow them.

Leicester College is highlighted as one example where a business case would help explain how full delivery has not been possible.

The college has been in continuous lockdown with the rest of the city since March 2020 and is among the top 20 per cent most deprived areas of the country.

The extended lockdown has only exacerbated this problem, the college said, particularly within the city’s black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, who were “specifically advised that there were at higher risk from Covid-19 and to stay at home, as well as lower-income households”.

Leicester College now forecasts using just 53 per cent of its £11 million allocation this year – and would lose more than £4 million to the clawback.

Principal Verity Hancock previously told FE Week the college has already suffered consequences, having had to back out of a £6.6 million capital funding bid for T Levels as it would have involved match funding £3.8 million which “we can no longer afford”.


‘It hampers colleges from delivering what is needed’

Meanwhile Gateshead College, which had been battling with deep financial issues before the pandemic, expects to only deliver 59 per cent of its £5.6 million allocation, meaning they face a £1.75 million clawback.

The college said its inability to provide face-to-face training for its adult education programmes, which focus on hands-on sectors like manufacturing and health, has scuppered their delivery plans.

Similarly, teaching of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses has not been possible remotely.

Hughes said it is “clear” from the AEB problem that the FE system as it stands is “overly complex, lacks trust, drives significant inefficiencies, is focussed on process rather than outcomes and presents far too many obstacles to colleges”.

“In short it hampers colleges from delivering what is needed and drives compliance with arcane funding and audit rules and regulations,” he added.

Hughes has requested meetings with Johnson and Williamson to discuss a way forward.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We acknowledge the situation is still difficult but many providers have been able to deliver very successfully remotely during lockdown and the return to face-to-face learning should enhance further providers’ ability to deliver.”

Number 10 has been approached for comment.