Only two years ago, the adult education sector was called ‘the crown’ and community learning its ‘jewel’ by the education select committee.

So why is a narrow offer (unless you can pay) possibly set to become even narrower? Jess Staufenberg finds out

The “existential decline” of the adult education sector because of drops in funding, status and public awareness of provision is a national tragedy, say sector leaders and experts.

FE Week can reveal a mass move among adult education providers towards fee-paying courses as free languages and creative arts provision is squeezed out; preventative programmes under threat from a new government consultation; and a residential adult provision that believes its specialist funding will be pulled from 2023.

It comes at a time when the case for lifelong learning has perhaps never made so much sense. A potent combination of the skills shortage laid bare by the pandemic and Brexit, people living longer lives and a public largely sick of austerity measures means the timing seems politically ripe.

Visit either of the main party conferences and you’ll hear “skills” mentioned on repeat. Perhaps not since the end of the world wars has the case for lifelong learning seemed so important.

Adult education – which is delivered by general FE colleges but more broadly by the adult community education sector – could finally get the recognition it deserves.

But there are two big problems. 

Firstly, skills for what? Skills for jobs? Or for life? For communities? For oneself? The debate rages on between ministers and providers – and the heat has turned up after the government proposed narrowing the ‘outcomes’ it is willing to fund to those only related to employment.

Secondly, the adult education sector is no longer engaging anywhere near the number of adults it once was. Despite an additional £900 million pledged in last year’s spending review for adult education by 2024–25, total spending on adult education and adult apprenticeships will still be 25 per cent lower in 2024-25 compared to 2010-11, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. 

Another way of putting it, from Learning and Work Institute, is there will be £1 billion less in adult education in 2025 compared to 2010 (and the 2010 level wasn’t even high enough, the LWI adds).

The result of these cuts – also fuelled by the 2013 switch to advanced learner loans for those over 24 studying levels 3 and 4, saddling adults with debt – has been “plummeting participation” in adult education, says Simon Parkinson, chief executive at the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), in what will be news to nobody.

It means there has been a 50 per cent fall in adults taking qualifications at level 2 and below, alongside a 33 per cent fall in the number of adults taking level 3 qualifications since 2010. By 2020, that meant about four million “lost learners” according to LWI.

But adult education also includes non-accredited courses relating to personal growth, social activism, health, creativity, employability skills and so on. Here, data on participation is harder to come by – but providers have widely told FE Week they have been forced to introduce fees for formerly free courses and focus their scarce resources on the most vulnerable.

Exhibition of advanced childrens book illustration at City Lit

To remind you, the adult education budget is about £1.5 billion a year and is divided into two funding lines. 

The first is the ‘education and training’ funding line, which is for accredited courses and usually covers English and maths, ESOL and digital skills qualifications, with various entitlements to free courses depending on your situation. This funding line is delivered by both general FE colleges and adult education community providers. 

The second is the ‘community learning’ funding line, which covers both accredited and non-accredited courses, both free and fee-paying (depending on who and where you are). This funding line is not delivered by general FE colleges, but by adult communication education providers only, including local authority services, specialist ‘institutes of adult learning’ colleges and charities such as the WEA.

It’s an especially varied sector encompassing 200 providers, 10,000 venues, 15,000 staff and around 500,000 learners, according to sector body HOLEX. But it only has a budget of £215 million a year (almost unchanged since 2005), which amounts to less than one per cent of the entire post-18 education and skills budget (for context, 84 per cent of that budget goes to universities). 

Overall, adult education – and community education particularly – is now a tiny drop in the ocean of the entire education budget of £99 billion a year.

 A proud (potted) history

Let’s start in 1919. After the First World War the newly formed ‘ministry of reconstruction’ launches a sub-committee for adult education, which produces a radical report. It calls for ‘extra mural’ departments (meaning ‘outside the walls’) to be set up in every university to engage adults in the community in non-vocational, non-accredited courses – a national commitment to adult education for education’s sake, led by HE.

Then before the end of the Second World War, the 1944 education act empowers local authorities to get more involved in delivery. The following 1960s and 1970s are the “heyday” of adult education, says John Holford, professor of adult education at Nottingham University, with strong links between providers, trade unions (who often fund their workers’ courses) and community groups.

The 1980s then bring “enormous change” under a Conservative government, with a drive towards employability outcomes, says Holford. Meanwhile, the 1992 further and higher education act separates FE and HE funding, so breaking up the partnership between the WEA and extra mural departments.

The 1980s brought enormous change for adult education

Also, adult education stops being a ringfenced funding stream for higher education, so universities largely pull out. Now, community providers such as local authorities and FE colleges are the main players.

By 2000 the new adult learning inspectorate is launched (later rolled into Ofsted), with regulations and outcomes continuing to be firmed up. By 2005, the Leitch review of skills argues employers should be directly involved in deciding what the training priorities should be. It also says individuals and employers should pay towards any courses which only have a “private benefit”. 

Funding cuts follow from 2010. The sector does get a welcome 2011 policy document, which states that community learning should “develop stronger communities”, improve personal confidence and social wellbeing. The New Challenges, New Chances strategy also calls for public funding to be focused on those most disadvantaged, with fees for “people who can afford to pay”.

But as the cuts begin to bite, there is a rush of reports arguing for a more generous adult education model from 2016 onwards. 

A UNESCO paper on adult learning and education praises its impact on everything from “healthier behaviours” to greater awareness of “arts, ethics and cultural heritage”. In 2017, University of Warwick academics report that adult education helps meet “major challenges including ageing, loneliness, mental health” and saves the NHS and social services money. 

The LWI make a similar argument in ‘Healthly, Wealthy & Wise’ the same year, before academics at the UCL Institute of Education put forward the case that every adult without a degree should get £10,000 to spend on education or training.

By 2019, the ‘Centenary Commission’, launched 100 years after the 1919 report, calls for a clear national strategy for adult education and lifelong learning, chaired by Helen Ghosh, an Oxford university academic and former civil servant.

To top things off, the education select committee produces “A Plan for an Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning Revolution” in 2020, calling for a community learning centre in every town. Bitingly, it adds: “The report finds that the Department for Education does not fully grasp the value and purpose of community learning”. By contrast the committee dubs community learning the “jewel in the crown” of adult education.

But the DfE is headed in a different direction. 

The “employer-led system” approach is well under way with local skills improvement plans, with higher technical skills having been prioritised with free level 3 courses from 2021 (despite the government’s own research revealing in July that many people can’t get onto these courses because they haven’t got lower-level qualifications).

And then this summer a funding and accountability consultation quietly announced the “need to re-orientate the vision for non-qualification provision” along three new objectives: employment outcomes for all learners, progression into further learning that moves learners closer to the labour market, and helping those with special educational needs and disabilities with their personal development. The “stronger communities” and “confidence” objectives have both disappeared.

 Double whammy: review and recruitment

FE Week spoke to 16 members of staff in organisations dedicated solely to adult education – institutes of adult learning, local authority adult education services and adult community learning providers. 

We also visited two providers: City Lit, an institute of adult learning college in London, and Wensum Lodge, Norfolk county council’s adult education centre in Norwich.

With 93 per cent of the adult community education sector graded Ofsted 1 or 2, it is unsurprising to find some brilliant practice across the board.

In Norfolk, for instance, the local authority applied to the government’s community renewal fund and landed £600,000 to develop two new construction skills centres this year. It is expecting 900 adult learners to attend the two new sites on non-accredited courses, and is working with City & Guilds to develop qualification pathways. Impressively, 30 per cent of enrolments are women.

At Wensum Lodge, one learner says he sees the construction skills as a “back up” to his job in computing, and he can now do some home DIY without having to pay someone. But above all, the course has helped him “feel happy”, he explains.

A construction learner and tutor at an adult education centre in Norwich

FE Week also met a class of four ESOL learners from Ukraine (the service works with about 500 displaced people), three apprentices on a level 4 accounting apprenticeship and a roomful of older clients learning the ukulele. Half of the council’s provision is for education and training, the other half is for community learning. 

But it is rare for community adult education providers to access capital funds for new premises, according to Denise Saadvandi, head of service for adult learning.

“Whereas colleges have been able to access pots of capital funding, we usually haven’t. We really need more of that type of funding stream if you want us to be able to respond to the labour market.”

And even with new facilities, staffing them is a problem, explains Carl Fiander, assistant head of service at Wensum Lodge.

“It’s exceptionally difficult, especially for construction and in accounting, where pay in the industry is so high,” he says. To tackle the issue, the service pays for people to do the level 3 and 4 education and training qualification in teaching, training about 12 staff a year this way – but there are still vacancies.

A ukulele lesson at an adult education centre in Norwich

Down in London, the Westminster adult education service delivers everything from level 1 to 3 graphic design courses, working with partners such as the Royal Palaces and Transport for London, to the library information and archive service apprenticeship with the British Library and Tate Modern.

But other programmes would be under threat from the new objectives proposed in the funding and accountability consultation, says Arinola Edeh, service principal. The council spends 20 per cent of its budget on community learning.

This includes a course on household finances which “isn’t about getting into work, but is about protecting the most vulnerable, helping them improve their credit rating,” says Edeh. 

Similarly, there’s a course on how to use your phone – so people can access services online, but not necessarily find employment – and a programme called ‘Brave’, which “helps parents spot signs of radicalisation, grooming and violence”.

“Community education is rarely in the first instance about getting into work,” Edeh adds. “All of that would be under threat from this review.”

At Lewisham council in south London, the local authority delivers a mental health course called Mindlift for £100,600 a year, which Sidra Hill-Reid, head of adult learning, says helps ease pressures on the NHS.

But as the local authority’s transition data for all its courses shows, 76 per cent progress into other adult education courses and only four per cent straight into employment, so she again fears the provision could be under threat. “That lovely outcome around ‘building communities’ isn’t in there anymore,” she worries.

Just as in Norfolk, recruitment of staff is also a big problem. “They jump to an FE college where they can get a permanent contract, which is understandable,” continues Hill-Reid. 

Staff jump to an FE college to get a permanent contract

The last government pay survey shows that teachers in adult education are paid £17,500 a year on average, compared to £27,000 in colleges – a huge gap.

Kerry Roberts, an adult education tutor with the WEA who delivers confidence-building courses, says her job is “very rewarding” but not paid “what it deserves”. 

She adds her family learning courses, such as how to plan a day-trip focused on strengthening family relationships, wouldn’t clearly fall under the consultation’s new objectives. Multiple providers tell FE Week their family learning programmes feel particularly under threat from the review.

For free or for a fee?

But aside from the threats to their existing courses, providers also warn about the ongoing issue of fees.

At Lewisham council for instance, where 65 per cent of adult education is community learning, much of that is now fee-paying. Of its £4 million in income for adult education last year, 12 per cent (£470,000) came from residents paying fees, of which £167,600 were for community learning courses.

“From 2010 onwards, there were such significant cuts to funding that local authorities had to make tough decisions about who they were going to target,” explains Hill-Reid, service lead, adding fees from wealthier residents are used to subsidise courses for their poorer neighbours.

But residents “still come through who say ‘I can’t afford this’, she continues. “There is a gap in provision for those who earn over the London living wage but still can’t afford to do this stuff.” Adults are reluctant to take on learner loans, she adds.

Community learning fees are also rising at the council: from £6 on average an hour (£3 when subsidised) last year to £6.50 (and £3.25) this year.

Jewellery making at City Lit college in London

Similarly at Bristol city council about a quarter of income for adult education comes from fees, bringing in £378,000 a year (though all community learning is kept free).

The most expensive course is £253 for 36 hours – with the reduced fee usually 70 per cent of the full fee – and the least expensive £12, according to Jane Taylor, head of service. 

“What about all these other people on low incomes? I just have to say, we don’t have the funding for that,” she says. “It means that languages and arts are not so widely available.”

Languages and arts are now not widely available

She adds: “In days gone by we had more adult education centres in Bristol, but they are all closed now.”

Meanwhile at Birmingham adult education service, the council has seen its fee income drop because of the need to focus staff and resources on courses for the poorest residents.

“As we are reengineering the curriculum to offer more to the most disadvantaged, we’re getting less from fees,” explains Ilgun Yusuf, principal of the service. Whereas the council got £1.4 million in fees in 2016-17, only £453,000 came from fees in 2021-22.

“Of course we need to make sure we’re not using public funds for courses people can afford. But because we have less money, we have to prioritise certain things,” continues Yusuf.

“It’s absolutely tragic. I call it the existential decline of adult education.”

 College offer under threat

We also spoke to five colleges: four institutes of adult learning and one general FE college.

Two are the only residential adult education colleges left in the country, taking some of the most vulnerable learners in the Yorkshire area (Northern College) and West Midlands (Fircroft College). Other residential colleges have closed or merged, with their provision scaled back.

Both the remaining institutions, which have relatively small incomes of only £4 million and £2.6 million respectively, have been threatened for several years with the removal of their funding uplift for residential placements, which is worth 4.7 times the base funding rate.

Now, FE Week can reveal that Northern College says it has been told by the ESFA “not to expect residential funding from DfE” from 2023-24. 

“That’s massive for us,” says principal Yultan Mellor. “It would be a very silly move to whip away residential funding next year, when the market has bounced back and we are oversubscribed.”

The college, which has 75 bedrooms, is at full capacity, says Mellor. She has even reduced the length of residential stays from a full week to three days because “so many people need to work as well as study”.

This has doubled residential placement availability, but the college is still full, according to Mellor.

Mel Lenehan, principal at Fircroft College, adds: “Residential provision is unique because it’s a wraparound experience for our most vulnerable adults.” Half of her students declare a mental health need when they enrol. “We can’t just expect that type of adult to succeed on a limited set of outcomes.”

A DfE spokesperson said no decision on residential adult education funding had been made.

Ceramics at City Lit college in London

Less residential provision has also reduced the space where people could learn how to transform their communities, says Sharon Clancy, assistant professor in educational leadership and management at Nottingham University. For instance, the working-class MPs Dennis Skinner and John Prescott both went to residential colleges (now closed) and on to Parliament.

The focus on individual health and wellbeing overlooks the importance of social and political education, continues Clancy, who also sat on the 2019 centenary commission. “It’s not about individual social mobility, but about returning to your own community and enacting change. That small ‘p’ political purpose is being lost.”

Meanwhile Rebecca Taylor, vice principal for curriculum and standards at John Ruskin College, says adult learner numbers “are not the same as they were” due to funding cuts.

“We’ve had to focus on competency-based offers, with a clear qualification, rather than the more diagnostic work that is more exploratory and will help someone decide what they might like to do.” During the pandemic, colleges found it so hard to spend their adult education budgets that 103 institutions had to return money to the government, with 19 handing back more than £1 million.

Finally, FE Week’s tour around the sparkling facilities at City Lit in London revealed fantastic children’s illustration exhibitions, ceramics displays, jewellery and book-binding workbenches, a spacious drama studio, adult lipreading unit, a classics and American history departments, and much more. There are 6,000 courses at the college, which is open seven days a week, 46 weeks a year.

“Adult education is a way to find respite from the day-to-day,” explains principal Mark Malcolmson. 

Adult education is a way to find respite from the day-to-day

“But my biggest worry is adult education could get priced out. London is very, very expensive.” His institution doesn’t have sliding fees but does have bursaries and instalment payments for some programmes.

But the pressure is on: the college’s fee income dropped from £10.1 million prior to the pandemic to £7.4 million in 2020-21. The college, though, is now back on track to producing more than half its income through enrolment fees, says Malcolmson.

 Cause for hope?

Experts are clear – the current situation is serious. Sixty-three per cent fewer adults are in literacy and numeracy classes now than in 2010, according to LWI research. “It’s disastrous, a complete crisis,” says chief executive Stephen Evans. 

He adds: “The other depressing statistic is it’s not just about government spending. Employers are spending 28 per cent less on employee training than in 2005.”

There have been good policies – the apprenticeship levy, Multiply and devolution – which just need tweaks, adds Evans. The new skills fund, which the AEB will be rolled into, should also be accompanied by “much simpler eligibility criteria” so people are less confused, he adds.

A big government push for greater awareness of adult education is also needed, says Alice Wilcock, head of education at the Centre for Social Justice. Research shows degree-educated people are more likely to know about adult education than those without.

“So what opens up is this cumulative learning gap,” says Wilcock. Instead, she calls for a “lifelong learning strategy that starts at foundation level not level 3”, and “a place to tell people centrally about what opportunities are open to them”.

Community providers must also be brought to the table to help determine local skills improvement plans, she adds.

There is food for thought for the sector, too. More high-quality career coaches in both adult education colleges and services could be a good idea. There is one career coach at Bristol city council, with another soon to join. Is that enough? Do such roles need to be more widespread to aid transition into work?

Meanwhile, Gerald Jones, director of community learning at Morley College, believes “simple and effective ways to measure the impact” of adult education holistically is genuinely possible. He sits on a government working group on how such outcomes might be measured (although it’s not clear whether it will continue under the new government). “Even an app could work,” he says.

For now, the sector is firefighting. The next battle is the funding and accountability consultation, which closes in mid-October. However, a long-term strategy, and future, remain unclear.

Our WEA tutor, Roberts, concludes. “I honestly think that a society that doesn’t look after itself is headed for a massive disaster.”

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  1. In a nutshell, the sector is too politicised, and peaks and troughs in funding follow which Government is in power.

    2010 is often used as the benchmark for funding and numbers (change of Gov), but that followed a decade of significant funding increases. Using it as the pivot point to make a case simply politicises the debate and guarantees that the Gov won’t budge. A strategy doomed to fail.

    The sector needs to be assessed with robust metrics looking at volumes (reach and need), funding per learner hour (efficiency) and wider outcomes (impact). Let the politicians of the time decide whether it’s public funding or paid for by the individual. Either way, the product needs to be saleable either to Government or individuals. If it isn’t saleable to both then a change of Government will always be an issue and it is a failure of leadership not to recognise and respond to that.

    Adult learning accounts are suggested by some (ie Government underwritten loans), but are a fallacy. Loans put the less affluent at a numerical disadvantage, eroding social mobility and widening the ever growing wealth gap. Calling for loans and saying it’s for the benefit of the individual is sleight of hand.

      • The comment from Mrs S, says it all. ‘the taxpayer shouldn’t fund peoples hobbies’. That is how govt sells community education for adults that isn’t linked to employment. Since 2005 cuts to FE (the New Labour govt started cutting back funding, as part of a general package of cuts to the Public sector), have seen courses slashed, student numbers collapse, never mind fall, and the sector in disarray as govt pursues a narrow furrow of everything having a visible outcome. Not content of course with throwing the sector to the wolves in 1992 (incorporation – ie forcing Colleges out of LEA control), after foisting on it the internationally criticised NVQ’s, govt has made the ‘Cinderella’ sector the ‘pauper’ sector as costs have been transferred to learners, who of course, are taxpayers. This resulted in lower take up, learners unable to pursue their interests, and, along with the decline caused by govt demanding one on the one hand higher takeup of their poorly policed ‘apprenticeships’, and yet refusing to provide additional funding on the other. What govt and their targets (hi Mrs s) fail to understand (or care) is that non employment based courses provided a way for older learners in particular, to literally get out of the house. Who cares? Well, they should care. My older students gave a very good reason why – because by being stimulated, by being able to get out of the house, they weren’t vegetating at home. Thus, they did not become a burden on the NHS. Their words, not mine. How many of the thousands of older students lost as successive govts slashed funding to ‘unimportant’ courses from 2005 onwards, have done exactly as they predicted? We will never know. But even if a fraction of them did, the cost to country and that elusive taxpayer (who never gets mentioned when govt isn’t wasting billions on daft projects or paying into its pals bank accounts), will run up a tab exponentially higher than funding courses at £5000 a year.