Five urgent tips for the DfE on adult education

24 Oct 2021, 6:00

There are far too many barriers for the unemployed and low paid to get into learning, writes Chris Morgan

There is a critical need to help the 3.7 million adults in the UK in low-paid and insecure work. Sixteen per cent of adults have poor literacy skills, and one in three have no qualifications. 

One in three adults who have no qualifications live in poverty.

This week the WEA launched our 2021 Impact Report, which reveals the extent to which community learning helps adults improve their employability and life chances.  

The research highlights the importance of learning for both boosting career prospects and its physical and mental transformative effects. 

We have identified five areas for minimising these disparities ̶ and have written to the Treasury in advance of its spending review. We must:

1. Maintain the current level of funding for the adult education budget  

This comprehensive spending review is long overdue and is the first realistic opportunity for Treasury to set budgets for three years ahead. A budget maintained at current levels for three years would offer providers a level of stability that has been lacking from the funding system for some time.

As well as setting out its very ambitious plans for the funding & accountability framework, the Department for Education (DfE) has also consulted recently on the national skills fund.

 This all adds up to a period of considerable change for further education, including community learning.


2. Create a distinct fund for adults who need essential employability skills 

The DfE is proposing to create a single skills fund that combines the adult education budget and national skills fund. The thinking behind this is to give providers more flexibility and autonomy.

However, in adult community learning we already have quite a lot of flexibility and autonomy. What we lack is visibility.

Our concern is that the single fund will see level 3 provision eclipsing community provision at lower levels. This could result in a very top-heavy model that does not serve those furthest from the job market.

Rather than a single pot, we would prefer to see two distinct, but inter-linked funds, including an essential skills fund supporting those who need most help. 

3. Remove the economic skills trap that creates barriers to study

There are so many barriers to the unemployed and low paid. For example, many learners miss out because they are earning just above the threshold to qualify for financial support. If you need more than one level 3 qualification to enter a career, the national skills fund will not fund the second one.  

And to gain access to level 3 study funded by the national skills fund, you need to meet entry criteria that many do not have, such as level 2 English, a 4 in GCSE maths, subject knowledge and work placement experience.

We are encouraging the government to break these barriers down. Some devolved mayoral authorities, such as Liverpool and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, are already starting to lift them, opening doors to opportunities for thousands of adults. 

4. Launch a national awareness campaign highlighting adult learning financial support

Visibility is one of the sector’s biggest concerns. Multiple studies have shown adults are unaware of the education provision available, or the funding support to cover fees and childcare.

A national awareness campaign would be especially effective in the most disadvantaged areas.

5.      Legislate for specialist designated institutions to have equal rights to grant funding

Since 1992, the WEA and other community learning providers have been classed as specialist designated institutions (SDIs). This status means that SDIs are eligible for grant funding in exactly the same way as general further education colleges.

With such root and branch reform of the funding system taking place, it would be easy to overlook the complexities.

So we ask that that the government legislates for SDIs to have equal rights to grant funding, or at least confirms on record that the current status still stands.

Then we can keep advocating for adults, arguing that it is critical they are not forgotten. 

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