The government’s ‘free courses for jobs’ offer is failing to attract more learners into level three training so far, new figures have revealed.
Backed by £95 million from the national skills fund, the scheme provides funded first level three courses for adults from a list of Department for Education-approved qualifications. It’s part of the flagship lifetime skills guarantee policy, alongside skills bootcamps.
Participation figures published today provide a first look at how the offer is performing. They show that between its launch in April 2021 and the end of the 2020/21 academic year, 4,780 learners were recorded starting a course through the scheme.
In the first quarter of 2021/22, August to October, 6,990 learners took part.
The government’s statisticians pointed out that had the scheme existed in 2018/19, there would have been 6,880 eligible learners on the courses between August and October.
The statistical release says: “6,990 enrolments is broadly the same volume as reported in final figures that relate to the same period in 2018/19 (6,880 enrolments on free courses for jobs qualifications between August and October 2018 by adults who would have been eligible for the offer, had it existed)”.
A DfE spokesperson said in response: “There were over 11,000 reported enrolments on the free courses for jobs offer in April-October 2021, which is a 30 per cent increase in comparison to the equivalent months in the 2018/19 academic year.
“This enrolment figure will continue to grow as providers deliver to more learners throughout the year and update their uptake figures. Data for August-October 2021 will not include all enrolments due to reporting lags and therefore do not reflect the final number of enrolments in the year.”
The Association of Colleges’ chief executive, David Hughes, said the economic disruption caused by the pandemic “makes it unwise to try to read too much into comparisons with pre-pandemic numbers.
“We are confident that as life begins to be less uncertain, and as the pandemic becomes endemic, more adults will seek education and training places. What we need is for colleges to be able to have flexibility across the plethora of programmes to recruit people on to the right courses to meet their needs,” he said.
The ‘free courses for jobs’ policy was launched in April last year by then education secretary Gavin Williamson with 387 qualifications that DfE decided would best lead to in-demand jobs. A challenge from the hospitality lobby and other employers then led to extra qualifications being added shortly after the programme’s launch.
In July 2021 the number of available qualifications was increased to 442. Those additional qualifications resulted in 750 extra enrolments.
As of January 27, 2022, there are 446 qualifications on the approved list and 405 registered providers.
The national skills fund received a boost in the chancellor’s October spending review. Treasury documents said that “a 29 per cent real terms uplift” to adult skills funding will include “giving more adults access to courses in in-demand areas”.
Figures released by the DfE today do not break down participation in this scheme by qualification, or by subject.
Extra flexibilities are set to be introduced from this April. People earning below the national living wage or who are unemployed will be able to access the courses regardless of prior qualifications.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers believes that the eligibility extension “should help boost uptake.”
“There is clearly still limited take-up on the government’s offer of free level 3 courses for eligible adults. However, it’s still a new programme, and it will take time before there is widespread awareness,” said AELP’s director of policy, Simon Ashworth.
As well as general awareness among learners, Ashworth is concerned that there may not be enough capacity in the market to deliver what should be high-demand courses.
“There is a serious danger that ̶ as with the adult education budget ̶ we could end up with underspent funds, despite there being significant need for support, particularly from disadvantaged adults. Without opening up delivery, big opportunities to support adult learners will be missed,” Ashworth added.