Council’s main adult education provider closes suddenly

The adult education charity had served more than 30,000 students in ten years, but 'trading conditions' forced trustees to close it today

The adult education charity had served more than 30,000 students in ten years, but 'trading conditions' forced trustees to close it today

A charity that has provided adult and community education in West Sussex for ten years has suddenly ceased operations this evening. 

In a statement, Aspire Sussex announced that it was unable to continue trading due to “the devasting impact of the combination of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis on its operations”.

Aspire received Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) funding under a subcontracting arrangement with West Sussex County Council.

Uncertainty over future contracts and a “significant” funding clawback when the ESFA changed its delivery threshold during the pandemic, also hampered Aspire’s finances, according to sources.

The statement adds that Aspire exhausted its reserves during the Covid 19 lockdowns in order to maintain its services for its most vulnerable learners. And the current cost of living crisis is “directly impacting availability of additional financial income and those able to pay for the cost of their courses”.

Provision ranged from specialist courses for adults with learning disabilities, ESOL from pre-entry to level 2, functional skills and GCSEs in English and maths, as well as family learning programmes and courses in understanding climate change, young people’s mental health and basic digital skills. 

Students come from across the county, including the constituencies of the education secretary Gillian Keegan, the MP for Chichester, and the minister for schools Nick Gibb, the MP for Bognor Regis. 

FE Week understands that between 1,200 and 1,300 students were enrolled at the time of closure.

It’s not yet known what arrangements are in place to relocate those students. However a WSCC spokesperson told FE Week the council will be “working closely and in partnership with Aspire Sussex, the administrators and the ESFA to support learners.’

Most of the charity’s staff were let go today but a small number will continue for the next few days to support communication to students, which is being carefully tailored for ESOL and vulnerable students. This includes 128 teaching staff and 64 operational and management staff.

The charity’s chair, Norman Boyland, said: “This is a deeply sad day for the provision of adult education to the residents of West Sussex, particularly those most vulnerable in our communities who we support.

“On behalf of the trustees, I would simply just like to say thank you to all our learners who we have had the pleasure of teaching, to our partners, and to the many staff and tutors who have provided first class training on behalf of Aspire Sussex over the last ten years.”

Aspire Sussex was established by West Sussex County Council in 2012 as part of a movement led by ministers in the coalition government to deliver adult education provision through charities, rather than local authorities. 

Aspire received around £3 million per year from WSCC for adult education and community learning as its sole subcontractor.

A WSCC spokesperson said the council has “provided significant resource, technical advice, and additional financial support to Aspire Sussex during this time and in response to Aspire’s requests.

“As recipients of ESFA funding West Sussex County Council review the adult learning contract on an annual basis. Plans will be made for a future sustainable adult learning programme to meet the needs of our communities in West Sussex and to help them to fulfil their potential.”

During the pandemic, the Education and Skills Funding Agency told adult education providers they must deliver at least 90 per cent of their 2020-21 grant funding in order to receive full funding, with providers liable for clawback for under-delivery. 

The WSCC’s subcontracting policy states that “if a subcontractor’s under delivery were to result in the ESFA clawing back funds from WSCC, the value of the ESFA clawback would be passed on to the subcontractor in full.”

While the value of the clawback has not been disclosed, it is understood to have had a significant knock-on impact on Aspire’s finances. It was this, alongside a “curtailed” ability to recover due to the cost of living crisis that forced trustees to close the organisation.

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