Excluding adults from FE reform is a costly political error

Adult learners are as deserving of funding and policy focus as all others – and fundamental to our short-term economic outlook, says Simon Parkinson

Adult learners are as deserving of funding and policy focus as all others – and fundamental to our short-term economic outlook, says Simon Parkinson

adult education

9 Oct 2023, 15:00

short courses

Government education announcements are often a popular last resort when the mood in the room is souring. It certainly felt like that at the Conservative Party conference, when Rishi Sunak announced that his “main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be in education”.

Is this the prime ministerial equivalent of shouting “Free drinks!” after delivering your best man’s speech? Or is it a real vision from a prime minister looking to tackle the very real problems besetting education today?

The only clear direction he gave was on the Advanced British Standard. It may well be true that five-year-olds currently entering the education system will benefit from the prime minister’s Advanced BS plan. But what about the people who need support right now?

Right now, post-19 education is being hung out to dry. Sunak rightly argued that education “is the best way to spread opportunity and create a more prosperous society”. So why is he ignoring one of the most obvious routes to spreading opportunity and creating a more prosperous society? What is he planning to do right now for adults whose lack of qualifications – and sometimes basic literacy and numeracy – is keeping them out of the workplace?

The Resolution Foundation predicts that 300,000 extra people will fall into absolute poverty next year. This is not surprising in the face of increasing unemployment, the death of the high street and customer-facing roles, a growing need to retrain and upskill, an unmanageable mental-health crisis and so much more.

Earlier this week, a new study from the National Literacy Trust and Experian revealed that 436 out of 533 (81 per cent) of English political constituencies contain at least one ward that has significant issues with literacy. 

And government statistics suggest that at least 17 million adults have numeracy levels we expect of primary-school children. This is 49 per cent of the working-age population. Research suggests this costs the UK economy £20 billion a year.

Post-19 education is being hung out to dry

Government must put as much focus on adult learning as on the rest of education. It’s not just the under-19s who need support.

We see the effect of adult learning first-hand. Forty-five per cent of our learners who were unemployed found work after taking courses with us. And 43 per cent of employed learners reported increased earnings. Furthermore, 45 per cent of learners who were unemployed prior to studying with us had stopped claiming benefits six months later.

And it isn’t just employability outcomes that matter, but also wellbeing and health. Ninety-two per cent of our learners made fewer visits to their GP than the national average, saving the NHS approximately £1.6m. In addition, 55 per cent of learners with a mental health condition felt their course improved their mental health. And 45 per cent of our learners say learning with us helped them to make friends, reducing social isolation. 

If the prime minister wants to boost the economy and prove that education really can make a difference, he needs to extend his funding support to those who are falling through the gaps right now.

We welcome the 6.5 per cent pay rise for teachers working in schools and the £500 million investment colleges have received to give their staff pay rises over two years. But what about those in the post-19 sector? They are working hard to equip adults with the skills they need to enter the workforce, but have again been forgotten.

The government must immediately set out a package of funding that will enable adult-education tutors to receive a 6.5 per cent pay rise too, bringing them in line with their colleagues in schools and other colleges.

And in terms of reform, government must remember that many adults left school without GCSEs. Focusing interest, investment and improvements on level 3 qualifications will fail many who aren’t ready to take that step – even if many will need to once they are able.

We wait to hear what the Labour conference will bring, but if either partly leader means to “spread opportunity and create a more prosperous society”, this must involve putting as much interest and funding into post-19 adult education as schools and colleges.

Our learners and our economy depend on it. 

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