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Fall in adult learners sparks two inquiries

Fears for older students as ministers switch focus to 16 to 19-year-olds. Ian Nash reports

Two national inquiries into the state of adult education have been launched amid evidence of a sharpening decline in the take-up of courses at colleges and community learning centres.

In the first, the Learning and Skills Council has appointed KPMG consultants to investigate exactly what is spent on adult and community learning programmes.

In the second, Chris Hughes, who is due to retire as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, will head an inquiry set up by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. A Niace study showed the proportion of adults with recent experience of learning had slumped from 46 to 39 per cent over the past three years.

Niace figures show that the proportion of such adults rose from 40 per cent to a high of 46 per cent over the first four years of the Labour government. Since then, rates have steadily declined.

Evidence is now emerging from the colleges' autumn recruitment programme that while the number of 16 to 19-year-olds signing up for courses has reached record levels, adult recruitment has declined further.

Both the Association of Colleges and Niace say tight LSC funding policies are squeezing flexibility out of the system. Also, conflicting government policies, which set colleges and schools in competition for post-16 students, were making things worse. The threat of new sixth forms to local planning of courses for 14 to 19-year-olds will be at the heart of debates at the AoC's annual conference in Birmingham next week.

John Brennan, the association's chief executive, in a pre-conference interview with FE Focus, said: "The message from colleges is that an overly prescriptive approach by the LSC is driving flexibility out of the system."

Ministers said all 16 to 19 learning should be state funded but local LSCs lack the cash to pay for it. "One college recruited above (16 to 19) targets set by the LSC but in line with its own projections. The local LSC told them to reduce their targets," Dr Brennan said. They were then advised to cut adult spending to keep within budget.

Plans for new specialist schools and 200 city academies with sixth forms by 2010 would create more problems for colleges trying to tackle the challenge to widen participation, Dr Brennan said. "Ministers have not thought through the impact on wider planning. There is no vision of what to shape over the next five to 10 years other than local initiatives driven by local factors."

Alan Tuckett, Niace's director, is not confident that the LSC is coping with the clash of local and national targets or the conflicting demands from within the sector.

"While ministers have pledged to fund adult learning leading to a full level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification, those who cannot afford the time for a full qualification are losing out.

"We are seeing a massive shake-out in the system and a decline in numbers taking, for example, Open College Network credits towards a qualification.

This has given people some qualifications and the confidence to go on learning. Since only one in three new jobs will be filled by young people over the decade, I would have thought ministers and the LSC would have seen the vital need to keep these people in learning.

"New school sixth forms are seen as a quick fix for coping with an expanding 16 to 19 cohort for the next four years. After that these sixth forms will be white elephants but they will have caused considerable problems for everyone else in the meantime," said Mr Tuckett.

The LSC refused to comment.

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