We need a government who will stop throttling adult education

Political leaders should be supporting flexibility and increased investment in adult education. Here’s how they can

Political leaders should be supporting flexibility and increased investment in adult education. Here’s how they can

26 Jun 2024, 5:00

The need for policy reform to ensure continued flexibility in qualifications and increased national investment for adult education is critical. Now, with manifestos published, it’s important to understand the implications for our vital yet often neglected part of the further education sector.

The Conservative manifesto focuses on young people. Its offer centres on the introduction of the Advanced British Standard to integrate A Levels and T Levels. This new framework aims to broaden the scope of subjects studied by learners aged 16-18 and promises £600 million in funding over the next two years to address teacher shortages.

Additionally, if re-elected, they plan to create 100,000 high-skilled apprenticeships by eliminating what they term ‘rip-off degrees’. 

In contrast, the Labour manifesto (though a little vague) emphasises inclusivity and investment in education at all levels.

Labour promises to increase funding for adult education, saying they will reverse recent cuts. Their plan includes expanding access to free lifelong learning and ensuring that education systems are adaptable to the needs of adult learners.

Labour’s stated commitment to improving funding and flexibility in education might actually benefit adult education. But what will it take?

Cuts run deep

Adult education is central for reskilling and upskilling the workforce, especially in a rapidly changing job market. The sharp decline in its funding over the past decade has had severe implications.

A reduction in funding from £3 billion to £1.3 billion has simply meant fewer opportunities for adults to gain qualifications that can improve their employment prospects and quality of life. This has been particularly harmful for non-traditional learners who rely on adult education to build confidence as well as skills.

As an awarding organisation (AO), Gateway Qualifications, like many others, understands the importance of continuous investment in adult education, especially when a significant portion of adult education funding goes towards entry-level to Level 2 qualifications.

These qualifications are essential for re-engaging adults in learning. They provide a stepping stone to higher levels of education and better job opportunities.

Flexibility is key

But it’s not just about funding. Government policies have also increasingly restricted awarding organisations’ ability to offer flexible and innovative qualifications.

The moratorium on the development of new qualifications has been in place for several years. This has strangled innovation, which has been particularly harmful in areas like digital technology and artificial intelligence.

Here, demand for new skills and qualifications has skyrocketed in recent years. Yet new qualifications have been limited to a few government-prescribed programmes. 

The awarding sector needs the ability to adapt and innovate in order to best serve the needs of the learners we serve.

In spite of these restrictions, we have consistently shown, alongside our partner colleges and training providers, that integrating flexibility and inclusivity into qualifications benefits learners significantly.

We believe that qualifications need to be adaptable and inclusive, meeting the needs of both learners and employers. We know that learners have diverse needs; the one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work.

A call for policy reform

As we approach the final days of the election campaign, I urge all policymakers to consider significant reform and parity for adult learners.

It’s time for policymakers to acknowledge the vital role of adult education in the UK’s prosperity, and the pressing need for increased Treasury investment and qualification flexibility. The FE sector should be equipped to deliver accessible, high-quality education to all learners, regardless of their background and starting point.

By prioritising inclusivity and adaptability in adult education, the next government can make a lasting impact on countless learners’ lives and help build a more resilient and skilled workforce.

Supporting the FE sector by reversing funding cuts, the restrictions on learner eligibility, and lifting the moratorium on new qualifications to support local, regional and national needs is a vital step forward.

Making this move will ensure that adult learners have the opportunities they need to flourish, helping to keep the whole FE sector system robust, yet agile enough to face its many future challenges.

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