DfE scales back ‘free courses for jobs’ offer 

Access will be restricted to adults earning below £25k in 2024/25

Access will be restricted to adults earning below £25k in 2024/25

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The government has rolled back on its “free courses for jobs” offer by restricting access to adults who are paid less than £25,000 – in a move branded as “short-sighted policy control”.

Education and Skills Funding Agency rules for the incoming adult skills fund in 2024/25 introduce an “earnings threshold” to the flagship post-pandemic offer that aims to help people retrain and get into work.

The scheme, launched in 2021 as part of then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s “lifetime skills guarantee”, has enabled adults to study one of more than 500 level 3 courses (equivalent to two full A-levels) for free if they do not already hold one regardless of what they are paid.

Before it was rolled out, only 19- to 23-year-olds were fully funded for their first level 3 qualification, while anyone older had to take out an advanced learner loan to pay for the course.

Department for Education officials have decided to limit the offer to adults earning below £25,000.

A DfE spokesperson said the eligibility criteria has been restricted so that funding is “better targeted to support those further down the earnings spectrum or who are unemployed to gain the skills they need to get a good job”.

Ten mayoral combined authorities that have devolved powers over adult education funding including free courses for jobs (FCFJ), which account for 60 per cent of the country, are deciding whether to adopt this change or stick with the current criteria. London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool told FE Week they have no plans to introduce the earnings limit.

The Learning and Work Institute (LWI) estimates that two-thirds of employees earn above £25,000 and would be ruled out by the ESFA’s threshold. 

LWI chief executive Stephen Evans pointed out the UK has “far fewer people qualified to level 3 than many comparator countries, and the number of adults gaining these skills has more than halved since 2010”.

He said this new earnings threshold is “short-sighted spending control that risks further holding back already weak economic growth”, adding that the government should be transparent about how many people it expects this restriction will affect.

Funding expert Steve Hewitt criticised the move. He said: “It’s very disappointing to see one of the most progressive changes introduced by this government rolled back without consultation or warning.

“This will limit opportunity for many people who didn’t have the chance to get a level 3 qualification when they were younger and don’t want to get themselves in debt via a student loan.”

Government data shows there have been 57,300 enrolments on the FCFJ offer from people who did not already hold a full level 3 qualification between April 2021 and January 2024.

Enrolments are 61 per cent higher than on equivalent courses in 2018/19, according to the DfE. But of those starters, just over half have achieved the qualification.

Sue Pember, director of policy at adult education provider network Holex, said take-up of the offer has been “lower than planned so we are disappointed that DfE is limiting the offer”. She told FE Week: “We also understand that retention is low, and we believe that is because many students are encouraged to enrol even when they haven’t level 2 in English or maths and therefore struggle with the course. 

“We would prefer students to be offered a vocational level 2 with maths and literacy confidence courses before they start the level 3.”

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  1. JustSaying

    The poor take up of the FCFJ which has fallen well short of expectation, is directly linked to the inability of Independent Training Providers to secure funding contracts.
    Shambolic national procurement and convoluted devolution of skills funding has resulted in very few ITP’s being able to access funding to offer to learners the FCFJ.
    The ITP’s are central to any successful roll out of government skills funding and when ignored the results are usually predictable.
    Whilst well meaning, if the Holex suggestion above that maths and literacy courses should be added is taken forward, then unfortunately the evidence from Apprenticeships is that this would of course reduce take up of the offer even further !