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.


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  1. Kevin Pound

    Amazed at how Colleges can look for PM intervention on Adult Education clawback when this funding should have been used to support those it was designed for and not frozen, delayed or stopped amid COVID-19 restrictions. Where was/is their plan to support blended and remote delivery to its clients.

    I understand that some Colleges have been in lockdown but so have PTP’s, we reacted and retained a proactive delivery ethos spending company reserve funds on amending delivery models to support the client base, retain staffing and avoid redundancies whilst remaining on profile across all our funding streams. So much so that we requested additional funds to support the demand, but no, none available!

    Small PTP’s struggle to access sufficient funds, so must use it and plan effectively adapting to the Pandemic to support the client base. Are the Colleges not meant to be the Hub of the community but some (Not all I add) have held onto their allocation under the stance that they will not see clawback and retain their allocation as they did last time.

    Being unable/unwilling to use their allocation should not be the justification to retain funds, it should be the check point to ensure their supply chain management is effective, engagement with their networks and partnerships would reduce the clawback and continue to see the community they are there to support continue to have opportunities.

    I’m sorry but: Use it or lose it. I just hope the funds are reallocated swiftly so that those in most need of it can access it.

  2. FE Watch

    If as much effort was put into supporting unemployed adults back into work as there is in defending the underperformance of some colleges then there wouldn’t be a problem!

  3. Laura Knight

    I work for an independent training provider.

    We developed an online curriculum that has allowed us to spend our entire AEB allocation and help adults get jobs and qualifications throughout the past year.

    Our contract ends in July and I don’t know if I’ve got a job in August. However, failure will be rewarded again and colleges will unconditionally get their full annual AEB allocations.

    Colleges begging for funding that they haven’t delivered shows a total lack of integrity and is very difficult to read.

    This proves yet again that colleges can’t be trusted to adapt to the needs of adults and businesses and reform is essential. The policy of ringfencing 90% of the adult education budget for colleges has yet again proved to be a totally flawed and outdated model.

  4. Interesting to see the blanket criticism of GFE’s on this section from PTP/ITP’s without actually having any knowledge of what colleges actually offer!?
    To claim colleges haven’t adapted to online delivery shows a clear lack of understanding of the sector. The vast majority of colleges I have either worked in or with over the past 12 months have developed excellent online content, the challenge here is where practical assessments are required or where the provision cannot be digitised i.e. ESOL, basic skill provision. For the colleges that are most at risk from the clawbacks this type of provision is at the centre of problem.
    Saying colleges can’t be trusted to adapt to the needs of business on AEB is a 1 dimensional argument made from the perspective of providers that only offer this type of provision , GFE’s serve a far greater audience.

    • Jon bright


      Don’t insult the intelligence of ptp’s.

      The issue to contrast is restaurants have responded by developing take away service to generate revenue or in your world consume funding.

      There are plenty of people in need of aeb support – colleges should have responded to these markets but oh no, staff on full pay with nothing to do and expect to keep the funding for doing nothing.

      The comments from the fe hierarchy and old stagers show totally out of touch they are with the reality of the world. Time to get rid of over paid principals and run the system properly. Finally, the big moaners are the city colleges who should have been responding to their communities – no excuses

      But their money is protected or so they think – and they say they are focussed on the learner – it’s a bit like Man Utd saying they are focussed on the fans (very apt this moming)

      • No insult was intended at all – all the comments on here are saying colleges haven’t evolved (untrue) and that colleges aren’t able to meet business need (also untrue) – colleges aren’t there to consume funding but I know plenty of people like yourself that seem to have this view of the world sadly.

        Are you actually saying colleges should have made staff redundant rather than pay them to develop their offer further? Not sure you were aware but most colleges couldn’t access furlough as part of the funding agreement.

        If you have experience on running a big city college I’d be keen to hear your insight into how colleges aren’t responding to their communities – have you managed to develop entry level ESOL or community type provision that can be delivered in a remote or blended format? The wider reach of colleges is far more broad then PTP/ITP’s in my experience, the vast majority of some of the colleges I have worked at have a broad community based delivery model, something that hasn’t been possible during lockdowns – to penalise colleges for this is patently unfair.

        Colleges are proud of learner experience, I’m sure PTP’s are as well (apart from the one’s that didn’t deliver dodgy quals to made up learners that is)

        • I appreciate that some areas of delivery have been completely shut down due to lock down, Other aspects of delivery eg access to digital devices and internet have caused issues. But we are a charity specialising in the teaching of ESOL , sub contracted through our LA and we have delivered on line ESOL from pre beginner – Level 2 all the way through both lockdowns with an average attendance of 86%. We have delivered on line assessments and exams. We have been a life line to many of our learners, reducing isolation and connecting them into other support where needed. Where there is a will there is a way.

  5. Dean Ryan

    Echo lots of the comments already on here, colleges like other providers should have reacted to the changing delivery needs that the pandemic brought on and moved to a blended learning offer for those courses they were able to do so.

    Surely colleges can’t be expecting the government to just allow them to keep the money?

  6. Amy Ealing

    Grant-funded providers should have pivoted and moved to more online delivery. Let’s not also forget its also still only April! Still 4 months left of the academic year, the lockdown has been relaxed, just crack on with it and stop complaining.

  7. When funding is concerned, this is a classic case of divide and conquer with each side cherry picking the most emotive and unbalanced argument.

    For starters, how about publishing AEB funded providers mid year funding estimates for the last few years.

    That would open up more informed judgements on:
    1. How trustworthy forecasts are (mid year versus final). (are providers willing to justify their logic?)
    2. How it compares to the 90% threshold. (Is Government willing to justify its logic on setting the threshold?)
    3. Assess who the outliers are and why. (to stimulate some meaningful insight and understanding)

    The trouble with having a low or no threshold is that there is no incentive to try and recruit, nor adapt. It’s understandable why providers drawing on other funding streams, with no protection, feel aggrieved, resulting in the predictable effort wasting bun fight.

  8. Bob Smith

    Personally, I think we need a slightly lower threshold (say 80% to 85%) and a business case process to support those in exceptional circumstances. I don’t think we should be rewarding those who haven’t adapted their provision.

    I also don’t think its helpful for ITPs and College’s to take up an adversarial stance in this instance. College’s tend to deliver the provision that is resource intensive, with lower profit margins. They should be protected, as their overheads are bigger, and arguably, what they deliver is more valuable. I don’t think we should all be rushing to sub-contract the under delivery, as all we will end up with, is a huge volume of low quality, e-learning, with poor learning outcomes.