'In the adult skills sector, we’re looking over the cliff edge'


Harvey Young, chairman of the National Consortium of Colleges and Providers (NCCP), writes:

The latest official statistics on adult learning published by BIS and the SFA this week make grim reading, with a number of stand-out statistics showing a truly alarming rate of decline in 2013/14 compared with 2012/13.

The headline figure was an overall decrease of 10.7 per cent in the number of adults learning, but there were also worrying dips in level 3 and 4 provision as well as a large drop in the number of apprenticeship starts.

Unfortunately, to those in the adult skills sector, this comes as no surprise.

Only two months ago we had a landmark report from the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee accompanied by a call from MPs for a national campaign on adult literacy and numeracy. Since then, the silence from across the political spectrum has been deafening

Quite rightly, enormous policy – and media – effort goes into improving opportunities for young people entering the workplace via apprenticeships. The work readiness or otherwise of graduates also gets much attention in high places.

The constant refrain from the government is that we live in a high-skills global economy, and in order for the UK to compete, employees must improve their skills. But, inexplicably, almost no media or political attention is given to the hundreds of thousands of adults already in work who, with a little help with their literacy and numeracy skills, would make a far greater impact in the workplace.

Confident learners are engaged workers who want to progress in their careers, and do more learning.

And they take their new-found confidence home with them. Many adult learners have negative memories of their own schooling, but once they’re on the adult learning journey they acquire the confidence to engage with their children’s education. And, for example, they can use their enhanced numeracy to work out the best utilities deal for their family.

The social benefits are incalculable: we are truly talking about lives transformed. This is how government can break the inter-generational consequences of under-achievement.

But the system does not work. This is largely because basic skills funding is not directed to specialist providers. Instead it goes to colleges and general providers who have no requirement, or incentive, to spend it on delivering basic skills and therefore don’t. And who can blame them in these cash-strapped times?

And, as the BIS select committee highlighted, little or nothing is being done to promote the training opportunities to the marketplace.

A whacking £50m has been made available by the European Social Fund to fund basic skills training in English and maths in the workplace. But who knows?

As so often in the basic skills sector, this is a short-term gain; the money has to be spent by July next year. Crazy. 

We’ve become so frustrated by the lack of support from government that a group of colleges and providers have joined forces to set up a national campaign to alert businesses to the fact that this sizeable pot of money is there.

But my fear is that by the time we have got the message out there and employers have made the necessary arrangements the funding will be gone.

This absurd short-termism is no way to run the sector.

It’s so frustrating that even after engaging with employers and hard to reach learners that funding is not available to support them throughout their journey. The learners are often very keen to continue with further qualifications. A fantastic result. But we can’t help them. This lets down both the learner and the employer

If we as a nation really cared about these huge swathes of employees in businesses up and down the country, we would ensure that sustainable, long-term, targeted funding is put in place. 

The Government has now recognised that the English and maths post-16 qualifications need reviewing. I urge ministers to take the opportunity to review the associated funding and procurement arrangements.

We urgently need a properly funded, long-term plan, utilising all the specialist, innovative training talent available in order to secure the most effective outcomes.

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