The Department for Education has reversed its position on ending funding for adult education courses that are not directly linked to employment outcomes, following outcry from the sector.
In its response to a consultation on adult education funding and accountability, published today, the department said it has “revised the outcomes” that courses should deliver and have reinstated improvements to health and wellbeing, family learning and community integration as acceptable outcomes.
Susan Pember, policy director at Holex, who led the charge calling for this change, said: “The Adult Community Education Sector is really pleased that government has listened and the response now recognises the importance of wider outcomes, such as mental health and well-being, which helps support adult learners who are often furthest from the workplace.”
The government has also decided to rename non-qualification provision to now be called tailored learning. The change will impact community learning, non-regulated provision and new “employer-facing innovative provision”.
The changes will come when the adult education budget is replaced by a new adult skills fund in 2024/25.
Reforms to adult education funding come following the government’s skills for jobs white paper, published in January 2021, which aimed to simplify the funding landscape and improve outcomes for learners.
However subsequent consultation proposals caused an uproar among adult education leaders.
Specifically, initial plans to scrap funding for courses that offered health and community related outcomes in favour of just employment-related outcomes risked displacing over 300,000 vulnerable learners, according to sector leaders.
Campaigners argued that narrowing what could be funded to just employment-focused courses would mean adults would lose out on opportunities to take community and family learning courses with social, health and well-being benefits.
DfE said today: “We recognise the wider benefits that such tailored learning can bring, both in providing a stepping stone to more formal learning and in providing responsive skills training to meet employer needs. We have therefore revised the outcomes that tailored learning can support to ensure provision can carry on supporting wider outcomes.”
It goes on to say that while the purpose of the tailored learning element of the new adult skills fund will primarily be for progression to employment or further learning, it “can also support wider outcomes such as social well-being and improved mental health.”
Stephen Evans, chief executive at Learning and Work Institute, said he was “particularly pleased to see the government recognise the purposes of learning beyond work.”
“Of course, there’s much further to go in terms of simplifying a complex system and to restore funding which is £1 billion lower in real terms than it was in 2010,” he added.
Tailored learning not for leisure
Adult education providers will be given a maximum threshold they can spend on tailored learning provision alongside their 2024/25 adult skills fund allocations. The exact proportion of the allocation that can be spent on tailored learning will be based on historical delivery of similar provision, like community learning and non-regulated formula funding.
Providers without existing tailored learning equivalent provision will be able to use up to 5 per cent of their adult skills fund allocation on those courses if they wish.
The term tailored learning will now be used to describe what was previously known as non-qualification provision. It includes what is now known as AEB community learning, non-regulated and new “employer-facing innovative provision” to tailored learning.
Providers will be encouraged through guidance to use this fund to support learners access employment or progress to more learning. But it can also be used to “support wider outcomes, as the current system does.”
Today’s document is light on detail but promises further guidance. However, it describes those “wider outcomes” as “improving health and wellbeing, equipping parents/carers to support their child’s learning and develop stronger more integrated communities.”
“We are grateful to Robert Halfon and Gillian Keegan for listening and for this progressive set of changes which should put adult community education in a good place for the next 10 years,” Pember said.
DfE explicitly states though that tailored learning, and the wider adult skills fund “cannot be used to fund provision for ‘leisure’ purposes only.”
Learner support u-turn
As well as the previously reported delay to bring in the adult skills fund, and the reversal on tailored learning outcomes, DfE has shelved its plans to allocate a fixed sum for additional needs funding.
The idea was that providing additional needs funding in this way, based on historic delivery, would give providers more flexibility because they wouldn’t have to “earn” the funding as they do now.
However, a massive 48 per cent of consultation respondents disagreed with this proposal and instead favoured continuing with the current additional needs funding arrangements.
DfE said: “Reflecting on the responses we received to these questions we have concluded that making the change we proposed at this time would not significantly benefit providers or learners. We will therefore continue with the existing arrangements for funding learner and learning support.”
New funding bands
Adult education courses will be funded through a system of funding bands with a new set of uplifts in place for priority courses from 2024/25. Funding rates will be set along five new hourly bands that range from £6 to £12 depending on the subject. The hourly band is then multiplied by a qualification’s guided learning hours to give a funding rate.
DfE’s consultation response reveals that slightly more respondents disagreed with this new funding approach, 36 per cent, than agreed, 32 per cent. The remaining 32 per cent were unsure.
The adult skills fund
From 2024/25, the adult education budget (AEB) and the free courses for jobs (FCFJ) funding streams will merge as planned to become the adult skills fund. This will apply to the funding devolved authorities receive from central government, as well as to what providers in non-devolved areas receive directly from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).
DfE said they are still interested in moving to a lagged funding model, similar to 16-18 funding, but a timeline for next steps hasn’t been set out.
DfE will go ahead with plans to set provider and devolved authority allocations and funding rates for a whole spending review period so providers can plan ahead.
Mayoral combined authorities have already been given their 2023/24 adult education budgets, but they will “shortly” be given provisional budgets for 2024/25. Similarly, ESFA funded providers will get their 2024/25 provisional allocations “early in the 2023/24 academic year” using delivery data from 2021/22.
National model for devolved authorities
The department plans to introduce a new national framework for devolved authorities, like the mayoral combined authorities, from 2024/25.
Currently, around 60 per cent of the adult education budget is devolved to combined authorities, with the rest going to providers in non-devolved areas through the ESFA. A number of new deals in the pipeline means even more AEB will be devolved in the coming years.
DfE said they welcome the responsiveness to local needs that devolution brings but are concerned about the increasing complexity this poses for learners and providers.
Its solution is a new national model for devolved adult education funding which will be introduced alongside the new adult skills fund.
Combined authorities will be consulted again, but it is proposed that the model will set funding rates for qualifications, suggest an approach for non-qualification provision, provide guidance for funding learners with additional needs and provide for lagged funding for “core aspects” of provision.
Skills minister Robert Halfon said: “Social justice must be the beating heart of our education policy and delivering a brilliant skills system is key to this.
“That’s why we’re rewiring the skills system, reforming funding and holding providers to account to ensure top quality courses across the board and help people into better, higher-paying jobs, no matter where in the country they live.”
DfE’s full response to the funding and accountability reform consultation can be read in full here.