'It’s simple – adult education needs more funding'

It would be mad to ignore the crisis in adult education funding, says David Hughes ahead of tomorrow’s spending review

David Hughes

Adult education needs a funding boost in tomorrow's government spending review, says David Hughes, of the Association of Colleges

As the years go by, I seem to find fewer things at work that surprise me. You might know that feeling of things coming around again, policies and ideas you have seen before. Or research findings and think-tank reports that simply reinforce the things you already knew.

So when we started to analyse the viability of delivering courses to adults at the prevailing funding rates, I knew that margins would be very tight. But I was not expecting the stark results that emerged. I was genuinely surprised at how inadequate the current funding rate is for the adult education budget when it comes to the sorts of courses that people need to be able to get jobs and which employers are crying out for.

Put simply, even at the maximum class size, none of the practical courses vital to the nation’s recovery are viable at current funding rates. On reflection, I probably should not have been surprised, given that the funding rates have stayed the same, with no increases for 10 years. That has allowed inflation to erode the rate enormously.

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The consequences of this are also simple and stark. The government’s flagship National Skills Fund is at risk unless funding rates are improved, and the recently announced Lifetime Skills Guarantee will not be much of a guarantee either.

Adult education in urgent need of funding

Our report, out today, has been shared with the government and there’s an opportunity this week for the spending review to address it. Given that our analysis of the funding rates problem for 16-19 study programmes was listened to and action was taken last year, there is some hope that the government will act. I hope so, because without a change, hundreds of thousands of adults could miss out on vitally important training and education.

A decade of cuts to adult skills over the past decade and the introduction of loans to replace grants in 2013-14 for a range of 19-plus courses have significantly reduced the number of adults learning now compared with in the past. The National Skills Fund, with £2.5 billion over five years, looked set to start turning that around but our analysis shows that it will not work at the current rates.

Our recommendation is to set funding rates for adult skills and education at the same level as those for 16- to 19-year-olds. Simple and sensible. I am pretty sure that the government is genuine in wanting to support the hundreds of thousands of adults who find themselves out of work. I am also sure that, finally, there is an acceptance that the large numbers who will require retraining are at risk of being left behind, now and throughout longer working careers.

Adult education has been neglected in education policy for too long and it would be madness to ignore our analysis. The chancellor has the opportunity this week to get it right. I hope he does.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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