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FE Focus Editor's Comment

On the face of it, there is not much cause for optimism in adult education.

The participation rate of 19 per cent, is the lowest since the Labour Government came to power.

Two-thirds of colleges and training centres are having difficulty recruiting sufficient adult tutors even though there will be at least 70,000 fewer college places for adults this year. And, suddenly, we find that the offer of free courses to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) is far less generous that it appeared to be.

Ministers may cry foul over the mounting evidence from the Association of Colleges, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and The TES, but they must not ignore it. When hundreds of college managers descended on parliament to lobby MPs this week, they didn't do it because they wanted to have a day out in London. They were warning politicians that while everything was poised for continued success, it could equally plunge disastrously the other way, for want of more cash.

This is not new. The situation is redolent of problems resulting from Schedule 2 of the 1992 Learning and Skills Act that dictated which lessons would be state funded and which would not. Then, it was the type of course that governed spending. Vocational, good: leisure, bad. Now, it is the level that rules - and a narrow-minded belief that success at level 2 is the key to economic success.

But the real issue is that there is not enough cash from the Treasury to do both and so less needy adults must pay a bigger share. While this is laudable in a perfect society, adult learning is anything but perfect.

Ministers may think in terms of "levels", adults returning to learn do not.

Current policies are as likely as Schedule 2 was to turn off struggling adults.

Colleges say they were forced to make cuts this year of pound;30 million and that, unless action is taken, the shortfall could grow to 10 per cent of budget.

We still live with the Thatcherite legacy that assumes there is always room for one more "efficiency" squeeze. But there is not. What really damaged Tory education ministers was their creation of a succession of policies on the cheap. By under-funding big promises, ministers looked generous in the eyes of the public while forcing colleges to raid other depleted budgets for the cash.

The Labour Government is in danger of making the same mistakes - undermining seven years of success in adult education.

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