'Adult education funding boost needs strings attached'

Underperformance of adult education institutions gets swept under the carpet - that has to change, writes Jane Hickie

Jane Hickie

FE White Paper: Funding boosts for adult education should have strings attached, says AELP

Adult education funding is like Groundhog Day. Every year without fail, the FE sector marks the Education and Skills Funding Agency's card and embarks on a lead-footed reconciliation waltz that results in no discernible improvement in performance but everyone retires knowing that they will get another chance next year with no serious damage done. 

Tolerance levels on delivery performance are written into the adult education budget (AEB) rules before the start of each year, but they are hardly worth the paper they are written on. This is because the underperformance of institutions usually gets swept under the carpet and most get to keep their allocations and retain their contract values for the following year.

The pandemic has undoubtedly been a mitigating factor in current delivery levels but last year AELP had independent training provider members who over-delivered on AEB in 2019-20, many of whom continued to support the national recovery effort with the delivery of training to critical key workers throughout the pandemic. Yet we’ve just learned that this additional provision won’t be funded while millions of pounds of under-delivery has avoided reconciliation – eg, a clawback of funds by the government.

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Providers are now two-thirds of the way through the current academic year of 2020-21, looking at a complete lack of clarity on the likely reconciliation arrangements for this year. It would certainly appear that ITPs are taking a major risk if they over-deliver again to support the still burgeoning demand from learners without getting a green light first from the government that they will be funded for it. 

Alternatively, they could look to undertake subcontracted delivery for grant-allocated institutions, but how much of an opportunity will be available via this route if a repeat of 2019-20 means that the institutions are guaranteed their funding anyway and there is no incentive for them to subcontract? This situation really highlights the need for a more demand-led and responsive approach to adult funding.

Making the most of adult education funding

As an Irish rugby fan, I use the term "kick for touch" when commenting on the vagaries of Whitehall decision-making, but, like Billy Burns’ penalty against Wales, the FE White Paper couldn’t even find touch when it addressed subcontractingHaving sorted out the matter satisfactorily for apprenticeships, the government still can’t make its mind up what it wants to do with the practice within the AEB where it still plays a large part and often does not deliver value for money.  In trying to correct a misunderstanding in a statement it made previously, the ESFA recently said that “the overriding expectation remains that providers should look to reduce subcontracting”. This is hardly likely to put the fear of God up the sector, but if this is really the case, then let’s see some teeth resulting from the promised consultation.

For any programme budget, the core principle should be that nearly all of the £1.5 billion AEB funding needs to reach the adult learner on the frontline, whether it’s national or devolved. It is not for propping up balance sheets. This is particularly pertinent when the economy is in recession and unemployment is on the rise, despite the respite offered by the furlough scheme. While next week’s Budget might extend the scheme, it will be phased out eventually and reducing unemployment and the retraining of adults will be key priorities for the remainder of 2021. Maximising value for money in the AEB is therefore something that Treasury officials should be monitoring closely.

Similarly, while efficient use of devolved AEB is unlikely to feature during regional TV debates in the upcoming mayoral elections in the combined authority areas, AELP would like to see detailed evidence from the metro mayors that their first round of AEB allocations have had a positive impact. Several deserve credit for putting more out to tender than anything done nationally, but the combined authorities could be doing more in using providers who have a track record in delivering directly on their contracts. A good start would be seeing more of the combined authority allocations being made available in their next round of procurements.

The White Paper did include one AELP desired policy outcome, namely the proposed simplification of adult funding. Having wisely ditched the unlamented national retraining scheme, the government still has the AEB, the new National Skills Fund and the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which resides in an incubator nearly five years after the EU referendum. Nominally part of the National Skills Fund, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee’s extended offer of a first level 3 qualification has involved join-up with AEB contracts and, in our view, we should be moving towards a single pot for funding adult education.

There was never a chance, however, of the DfE using the White Paper to recommend access to a single pot via individual learning accounts. This is despite the fact that from April we will have a fully employer demand-led system for apprenticeships which could be replicated for adult learners. The approved list of qualifications under the Lifetime Skills Guarantee sets another precedent that could be copied for adult learning as a whole, while accounts could only be used with registered providers and colleges. Many approved qualifications could have a direct line of sight to an employment outcome. The government wanted to get rid of what it called a “clunky” contracting system for apprenticeships, so why not do the same for adult education and give adults an easier way of exercising choice in a much-changed learning landscape?

Media reports have trailed a boost for adult education in the chancellor’s Budget on 3 March. We agree with other stakeholders in the sector that this is much needed, not least to improve the levels of attainment at level 3 and below. In terms of widening participation, basic numeracy, literacy and digital skills need greater support, too. Where there is disagreement is how adult funding should be allocated to ensure the maximum amount reaches learners and more of them. AELP believes that the chancellor’s support should come with strings attached, and that means a comprehensive review of adult funding that results in no more "deja vu all over again".

Jane Hickie is chief executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers          


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