The WEA (Workers' Educational Association) is facing a 28 per cent cut in core funding in 2019-20 as a result of the devolution of the adult education budget (AEB). The result of this is that provision is at risk and, even if we are successful in winning back funding, students may not have access to the wide breadth of provision that they currently enjoy. The impact of this is that the postcode lottery will certainly get worse for many communities and individuals.
The WEA currently provides education for 50,000 adults every year and targets the most disadvantaged groups; 43 per cent are on income-related benefits, 42 per cent have no or very low previous qualifications and 37 per cent live in the most deprived areas.
In some mayoral combined authority (MCA) areas, we have seen a shift in focus towards key growth sectors up to level 7. Not only that, but a stronger focus in AEB spending on employability and skills delivery ironically has an adverse impact on community learning and, in particular, inclusion, which impacts the ability to support adults who are furthest from the labour market.
Unable to access education?
We must consider the impact of this shift on the postcode lottery, as it will certainly worsen for students. Will we now have students outside of MCA areas having a wider range of course options, and those within unable to access non-employability provision? What will the impact of this be on students’ attainment, health and wellbeing, and consequent impact on our over stretched public services like the NHS? We fear there are lots of unintended consequences of devolution that nobody is addressing.
What happens to the students who left school with no qualifications? What happens to the 9.6 million adults who currently lack basic numeracy skills, 8.1 million adults lacking basic literacy skills and the 11.5 million that lack basic digital skills? How do we offer pathways that allow them to re-engage with learning that allows them to progress? Not forgetting those who are unable to work but who want to access education for the health and wellbeing benefits we know transforms people’s lives.
What will happen to arts and creative courses that allow expression and drive confidence and increase self-belief, allowing students to flourish and progress from being scared to walk in the door to becoming resilient, like Donna from Liverpool. Those not looking for employment but the wider positive impact learning can have cannot be forgotten in regional and national strategies.
Looking beyond the DfE
We must learn the value of adult education to not only the Department for Education but the Department for Health and Social Care, the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions, to name a few. A more holistic view is needed to understand the true value of adult education.
We must ensure we offer accessible provision to the most deprived communities and hard-to-reach groups, but how do we do this when provision based around improving "softer skills" such as confidence that boosts pre-employability is no longer available?
We know that employers are crying out for this to meet the skills challenges they face. Finding the right workers remains a challenge, often due to a lack of the required skills, qualifications or experience among applicants. Confidence building is an essential pre-requisite for engaging hard-to-reach learners, especially those furthest from the job market and adults with low or no qualifications. We must remember we need to encourage them to consider learning as a possibility and something that is available for them and make it accessible to them.
Engaging the most disadvantaged
It is essential that people realise the opportunities that this will bring to the economic growth of this country if we engage the most disadvantaged in learning and make sure they are not left behind as collateral damage in the quest to focus on growth areas. There are currently more than 8 million economically inactive people in England, and they can provide a huge contribution to this country’s skills gap and help reverse the skills deficit. This number of people can increase success in regional and national economic growth and allow a huge number of people to progress from no qualifications to level 2 and above. Ignoring their potential is incredibly short-sighted.
As we know, there is no one-size fits all in adult learning – increasing access requires a nuanced and personal approach. We must work with the hard to reach, but they need a specific strategy. Community-based providers are already performing well in attracting and having an impact for the most hard-to-reach groups, as local access is very important. We know that increasing choice in the types of adult learning on offer improves access, and information, advice and guidance are essential and that signposting adults to services that look interesting and fun, to get them through the door and build self-confidence, is crucial.
We must not forget that adult education is a beacon of hope and should be a place where all can come to re-engage with learning. We must not turn people away because of who they are, or where they live. It is vital we do not leave the most disadvantaged communities and individuals behind.
Ruth Spellman is chief executive of the WEA