DfE’s latest consultation puts adult community education at risk

25 Jul 2022, 13:07

The suggested new outcomes are limited and do not relate to the wider benefits of adult learning, writes Sue Pember

Hidden in the recent technical consultation document on FE funding and accountability there are a few proposals which, if implemented, could fundamentally change the adult education offer for many millions of learners who have poor skills.

It will also impact on the Department for Education’s contribution to the “levelling up” agenda for those adults who are furthest away from formal education, work and society.

DfE are proposing to move away from this government’s established and successful policy for community learning which, in the past ten years, has been effective in supporting 400,000 adults annually improve their skills and lead more fulfilling lives.

(Adult community learning has also been described by the chair of the education select committee as the “jewel in the crown” of the FE sector).

That’s because the funding and accountability consultation document seems to have missed the point that many adult learners don’t sign up for their first course because they think it might lead to a better job or set them on a pathway to a brand-new suite of qualifications.

Most turn up to adult community education because they want a fresh start, they’re hoping to find a sense of community and to improve their wellbeing.

Adults who start off on community learning courses will often get hooked on adult community education and find themselves progressing onto other courses that are great for employability, but this often wasn’t their intention when they first turned up.

The need to get adults through the door of adult community education is fundamental if the government wishes to deliver on its promise to level up.

Currently, levels of economic inactivity are soaring and long-term illness is the main driver of record level vacancies.

Adult community education can provide a win-win, it is shown to boost adult mental health and can give the hardest to reach adults a path back to employment.

The need for adult education from entry to level 2 has become even more clear this week as the government published the evaluation of its “Free Courses for Jobs” scheme.

Over half of all providers said that some of their applicants did not hold the requisite level 1 or level 2 qualification to benefit from the level 3 course on offer.

The evaluation recommends that the government target support in making level 1 and Level 2 courses available for learners.

This demonstrates we need to create a pipeline of talent which is built from the foundations of adult community education.

The existing policy states the purpose of community learning is to develop adults to progress into formal learning or employment, improve their health and wellbeing and develop stronger communities.

This policy has provided stability and direction for the last 10 years and has helped millions of adults improve their lives.

Although the overall budget was capped and has not grown since 2010, the adult education sector has been proactive and played their part in building communities and delivering the “levelling up” agenda.

It has been building back since Covid and working with new cohorts of migrants from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, in addition to those adults over 50 who have not returned to work since Covid. 

Therefore, it came as a bit of a shock that in the consultation on FE funding and accountability the DfE want to limit the scope of community education and duplicate activity already funded through the adult skills budget.

DfE want to limit the scope of community education

The proposed new remit is to use the adult community learning funding allocation to deliver courses that just lead to higher level jobs or further education (of course that’s important but that is the purpose of the main adult education budget).

It also proposes to drop the wider benefit of learning and the requirement to use the funds to develop stronger communities.

Programmes such as family learning, social prescribing, health and wellbeing and first steps ESOL would be lost.

These suggested new outcomes are limited and do not relate the wider benefits of adult learning.

They are restrictive and do not address the broader skills people require now and for the future, and they will undermine local decision making.

These changes will impact adversely on learners from the lowest economic groups, on women and those with health issues.

They will undermine the government’s “levelling up” agenda and put more strain on other services such as the NHS, Department for Work and Pensions and Home Office.

These proposed changes will impact adversely on learners from the lowest economic groups, on women and those with health issues.

It will close the pre-entry ladder to level 2 and 3 skills.

Removing building communities would also limit community engagement and weaken joint work with the NHS.

It would curtail the partnership subcontracting between community providers and the voluntary sector.

We need to ensure, through responding to the consultation that government is aware of what they could lose and stop the unintended consequences of such a change.

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  1. Derek Tilley

    Will this Government never learn. 20 years ago when they destroyed Adult education they did not listen. I ran a very successful adult education programme in FE. Many of the learners came to learn new skills for life, not work, and had not been in education since leaving school. It gave them confidence to go on to study more formal work based learning programmes that helped upskill the country.

  2. Dave Spart

    I have worked in the sector for 30 years. During that time I have seen a continual narrowing of the vision for what adult learning could or should be, with a more and more exclusive emphasis on employment-related outcomes. These proposals represent a reductio ad absurdum of that trend, whereby this philistine government literally recognises no other purpose: forget community cohesion or development, health, wellbeing and most certainly forget any notion of personal or cultural enrichment or the value of learning for its own sake.

    What is even more idiotic and self-defeating, however, is the fact that the proposals fail even on their own terms. As a previous commenter has observed, and as e.g. many working for the DWP recognise, ’employability’ is a continuum and at one end of that, for those furthest from the labour market, it can be about overcoming social isolation or mental ill health, developing a routine and building confidence, which often require a gentle approach that is not explicitly or overtly about developing employment skills.

    These proposals must be resisted.