One of England’s oldest and largest adult education organisations is considering legal action after it was denied grant funding from a new combined authority.
The “shocking and devastating” decision by the North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) to refuse a guaranteed annual adult education budget (AEB) contract to the WEA puts around 1,600 learning places and over 70 jobs at risk.
Simon Parkinson, chief executive and general secretary of the charity formerly called the Workers’ Educational Association, told FE Week the verdict was sudden and unexpected given the organisation’s grant-funding contracts in other devolved mayoral combined authorities and assurances from the Department for Education that WEA is eligible for grant funding.
The decision to “defund” WEA’s work in the area amounts to £1.3 million hit to the charity’s budget.
Parkinson said: “The WEA has been a trusted partner in the region for over a hundred years, working collaboratively to address the learning needs of thousands of adults across the region.
“The lack of clarity behind this sudden decision is concerning and comes at a challenging time when the demand for our services is both high and more critical than ever.
“We will be issuing FOI requests and exploring other legal and statutory routes to formally challenge this decision.”
The combined authority said the WEA will be able to bid in its AEB procurement round instead of receiving an automatic contract every year.
A NEMCA spokesperson told FE Week the authority was “establishing new providers to deliver AEB through open and competitive procurement processes.
“The vast majority of providers, such as national providers, will secure contracts in this way following our well-publicised processes. This year successful providers will be in place from August 2024.”
Mayoral combined authorities typically provide adult education funding through grants for colleges, designated institutions, and local authority services. Private sector companies can only receive funding through competitive procurement rounds.
The WEA currently delivers AEB for the North of Tyne Combined Authority which will be replaced by NEMCA this May. It’s received around £350,000 a year, through a grant, for the last three years from that combined authority, though current contracts come to an end in July.
It is also grant-funded for AEB with mayoral combined authorities in West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Midlands, West of England and the Greater London Authority.
NEMCA has already informed local colleges and local authorities that they will be grant-funded, FE Week understands.
WEA is legally a designated institution, a specific category of further education institutions defined in law. The designated institutions were reclassified as public sector organisations alongside colleges by the Office for National Statistics in November 2022. Other designated institutions include London’s City Lit, The Mary Ward Centre and Fircroft College in Birmingham.
Parkinson said the WEA was in the process of writing to its 1,600 learners in the area to inform them that courses will no longer be available from the end of July.
Courses on offer in the region include beginner English and maths, pre-entry ESOL, cooking on a budget, fitness and mental health qualifications.
NEMCA is not the first new mayoral combined authority to attempt to deprive WEA of grant funding.
In 2021, the new South Yorkshire Combined Authority initially rejected WEA’s bid for funding, stating it was ineligible to receive a grant and was unsuccessful in its procurement round.
But this was later overturned. Parkinson said South Yorkshire “misunderstood” WEA’s legal status and “realised they made a mistake”. WEA received £312,345 from South Yorkshire in 2022/23.
The government signed off on an expanded devolution deal for the north east in December 2022 which replaces the North of Tyne Combined Authority, the non-mayoral North East Combined Authority and the North East LEP with NEMCA. Elections for the first NEMCA mayor take place on May 2.
The new combined authority will have an adult education budget worth £51 million in 2024/25. Budget documents state the authority will take a near 5 per cent top slice of £2.1 million for administration costs. NEMCA’s leadership board forecast an increased £64 million annual AEB from 2025/26 to 2028/29.
Parkinson hopes NEMCA will follow South Yorkshire and “urgently re-consider its decision”.