Adult education funding: let's be cautiously optimistic

As David Hughes remembers lifelong learning pioneer Bob Fryer, he looks at the future of adult education funding with hope
14th December 2020, 4:36pm
David Hughes


Adult education funding: let's be cautiously optimistic
Adult Education Funding: Let's Be Cautiously Optimistic

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Fryer last week, a lifetime advocate and embodiment of lifelong learning. Bob had an infectious energy and curiosity and would spend most of his career focused on key issues in post-18 education, including widening participation, social justice and innovation in learning and teaching. 

It's with Bob in my mind that I write this week about prospects for lifelong learning, and it is with the optimism and hope that Bob always showed that I aim to set out what might happen in the coming months and years.

I start, though, with my favourite quote from the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, May 2019: "Post-18 education in England is a story of both care and neglect, depending on whether students are among the 50 per cent of young people who participate in higher education or the rest."

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And what a neglect it has been over the last 10 to 15 years. Where better to turn to than the Institute for Fiscal Studies annual report on education spending in England November 2020: "Spending [in adult learning] is nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003-04 and about 50 per cent lower than in 2009-10. This fall was mainly driven by the removal of public funding from some courses and a resultant drop in learner numbers, which fell from 4.4 million in 2004-05 to 1.5 million by 2018-19." 

That's a staggering reduction that almost defies belief and certainly has no reasonable rationale. There was no evidence that drove the multiple decisions that resulted in that neglect; no politician ever stood up and advocated for less adult learning. In fact, during all of that period, I can give countless examples of senior politicians, both those in power and those in opposition, claiming personal and political support for lifelong learning. 

Let's face it, no politician ever wants to be negative about people improving their chances of a good job, more pay and a better, healthier life - and all the evidence shows that is exactly what lifelong learning delivers. It delivers so much more, of course, in personal confidence, self-esteem, tolerance, inclusion, wellbeing, community involvement and social progress - all of which politicians say they want more of constantly.

The levelling up agenda

For the current government, the levelling up agenda looks ripe for more investment in adult learning, and as a platform for helping to create a lifelong learning culture. The signs are that at the very heart of this government, that message has been heard.

The prime minister's speech at Exeter College in September was a masterclass in optimism and promises, with the prospect of a new Lifetime Skills Guarantee in which the PM promised to deliver "a system where every student will have a flexible lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education - and suddenly, with that four-year entitlement, and with the same funding mechanism, you bring universities and FE closer together; you level up between them, and a new vista of choice opens up."

The PM made some other strong points in his speech, about the need for retraining, particularly in the coming years as a result of the pandemic, which has restructured our economy in relation to retail and disproportionately hit sectors which employ large numbers of people with lower qualifications.

But the challenges in this should not be underestimated. The Learning and Work Institute Adult Participation in Learning Survey November 2020, for instance, found that "just one in five (20 per cent) adults who left school at the first opportunity took part in lockdown learning, compared to three in five (57 per cent) adults who stayed in education until 21". And the Work Foundation Learning to Level Up November 2020 report suggests that "over 7.5 million mid-career workers have not received any training since leaving full-time education". 

The story of lifelong learning is full of strong rhetoric and insufficient investment, so it's best to remain sceptical. After all, in 2014, David Cameron, who was prime minister at the time, said that "from now on, everyone is going to be thinking of how to continuously increase your skills through your life" - and yet he oversaw a rapid reduction in funding for adult learning.

A glimmer of hope

The signs are that this government has begun to reverse the decline in funding, albeit modestly so far. The new National Skills Fund will offer a free level 3 education for adults over 23 years of age and the Spending Review included some funding to boost education and training at levels 4 and 5.

Both are welcome first steps, but very far from sufficient, with barriers to participation still too high. For instance, the entitlements are only for a first level 3 despite acknowledgement that many people will need retraining and there is no maintenance support to allow people to learn while on benefits or in part-time work.

So, I suspect Bob would have been sanguine about all of this, but typically bullish and energised. For me, there is just enough there to see a glimmer of hope, and with an FE White Paper on the near-horizon, I might even be able to manage a glimmer of optimism, particularly after a much-needed Christmas break.

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