What price adult learning in the next few years? As the new Cabinet announcements were made, I thought adult learning and skills had disappeared into business and enterprise, and had visions of the last remaining bits of liberal education being drummed out of court.
It was not such a fanciful idea if the vision in Sir Andrew Foster, and the recommendations from Lord Leitch were followed through. A commission on employment and skills, sector skills councils deciding which qualifications count for public money, contestability for everything it is an analysis that leaves little room for creativity, democratic citizenship, the celebration of diversity, or widening participation.
What a pleasure, then, to find that adult learning will now nestle in a department of innovation, higher education and skills.
Good, too, that the department is to be led by John Denham, a politician of principle. The changes in the machinery of government give us an opportunity to review the balance of current public policy as it affects adults. After all, a million adult learners have been lost from Learning and Skills Council funded provision in the last two years. The annual Niace participation survey showed a drop from 55 per cent to 48 per cent among part-time workers.
Recruitment to Train to Gain is reported as barely 60 per cent of planned numbers (125,000) and completions are low, too. Indeed, many are no more than the assessment and accreditation of existing skills. The LSC's success in getting through to over 60 per cent of "hard-to-reach" employers is set in context when you realise that "hard to reach" means "not engaged in vocational training leading to a qualification or holding Investors in People recognition" over the last 12 months. And skills brokers, the key to the success of the Train to Gain policy, have variable performance so far.
On the whole, the re-balancing of FE sector investment flowing from the skills strategy has shown little evidence that employers have been stimulated to increase investment, while individual learners have lost out. Meanwhile, the financial pressures on the LSC suggest adults face further misery with popular courses replaced by workplace provision that employers are not yet taking up, and routes back to the labour market disappearing for people a long way from work.
That is just the kind of innovation and risk-taking the new department would do well to resist.
is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education