Community education providers have called for the government to scrap its FE funding and accountability consultation, as they fear its plans could displace over 300,000 vulnerable learners.
Leaders from across the sector – including local authorities – have raised concerns over “hidden” proposals within the Department for Education’s latest skills funding consultation, which prioritises employment-related outcomes and removes outcomes related to health and communities.
The consultation, titled ‘Skills for jobs: implementing a new further education funding and accountability system’, states that reforms to the sector’s accountability regime “provide an opportunity to review non-qualification-based provision”, including non-regulated and community learning.
It goes on to say: “We believe we need to re-orientate the vision for non-qualification provision and hold providers to account for the outcomes they deliver…We are proposing that in future all non-qualification provision should meet at least one of the following objectives:
• achieving employment outcomes for all learners
• achieving progression to further learning that moves individuals closer to the labour market, for all learners
• helping those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities to support their personal development and access to independent living.”
Adult education body, Holex, has already warned the department that going ahead with this proposal will have a “devastating” impact on learning opportunities for the most vulnerable adults, and has raised a formal complaint about the lack of prior engagement and impact assessment.
In a letter addressed to the minister for skills, Pat Carrington, the chair of Holex, said: “Limiting outcomes to just a job or further study for the whole skills budget without keeping back an amount for the wider benefits of learning would lead to a loss of a vast number of critical adult education courses for those who need adult education to help them with other life issues.”
The letter goes on to demand that the department either withdraws the consultation or provides more detail on why there is a case to change existing policy.
The current funding guidance allows for a broader range of community learning outcomes than is being proposed, including improving learners’ health and well-being, their mental health and developing stronger communities.
But, the government has defended its approach. A DfE spokesperson told FE Week: “Non-qualification provision continues to play an important role in our skills offer. We want to ensure it aligns with the vision for the new Skills Fund and meets wider skills and employment needs – which is why we are seeking views from the sector through an open consultation.”
Excluding outcomes that aren’t about getting into work couldn’t have come at a worse time, according to Arinola Edeh, principal of Westminster Adult Education Service, who believes now is the time to be expanding community learning, rather that reducing it.
“We can’t afford to limit access to community learning at the best of times. But heading into a recession makes our community learning programmes even more vital,” Edeh told FE Week.
Examples of programmes at risk include their managing personal finances courses and their ‘every day English for parents’ family learning course, which aims to boost children’s attainment. Neither of those programmes would be covered by the new outcomes, Edeh said.
Neither would courses that reach those furthest away from work where outcomes are more about building resilience, confidence and social networks, which often then lead on to more work-focussed learning.
According to Sidra Hill-Reid, head of adult learning at Lewisham Council, courses with more social outcomes – like being able to access digital council service, benefits, self-advocacy and civic rights – wouldn’t be eligible for funding under DfE’s plans. Excluding learners would be “loosing access to a talent pool” Hill-Reid argues.
Jane Taylor, head of service (employment, skills and learning) at Bristol City Council, described how community learning can be “the first step in a pipeline towards work” but also delivers outcomes which are good for individuals, families and society in their own right.
Local authority providers, such as Bristol, have decades of experience of outreach and progression with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities which would be at risk, according to Taylor.
The consultation closes on October 12, 2022.