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Finally, a grown-up approach to adult learning

The Government wants a fair wind for adult learning. It wants more learning in community settings to accompany the transfer of funds from local education authorities to the new Learning and Skills Council.

The Council has made the expansion of opportunities for adults one of four priorities for its first year.

Minister Malcolm Wicks' announcement of a 9 per cent increase in the adult education budget, and the first ever capital grant for LEA adult education for 2002-3, suggest a real attempt to change the polices that squeezed adult education hard in the 1990s.

During this period, there is no doubt that authorities were quietly encouraged to raid their adult budgets to balance the books in schools. But what was the alternative? Adults never come out well when their case for funding is pitted directly against that of schools. Adults themselves all too often argue that young people must have first claim on the public purse.

The extraordinary thing is that so many authorities maintained or even increased provision for adults. They can now look forward to building on a strong base to improve opportunities for the least well-served adults in their areas.

Until the summer of 2003 provision for adults will be ring fenced, though LEAs will only receive the funding when their annual plans are approved by the local LSCs.

The ring-fencing is welcome on two grounds. First, it will give time for LSC staff, who are largely from Training and Enterpris Councils, to learn about the complexities of community-based adult learning; second, it will give time for services to collect better data about their stuudents. Because this area of work is underfunded, in many places it is hard to map students' " learning journeys", to use the BBC's attractive phrase.

At first sight it also looks as if the ring fencing of adult work will give the Learning and Skills Council breathing space to work out future fees for adults. Certainly, it has a lot to do for the system to function effectively in April. But the probem is not simple.

The Further Education Funding Council assumed that institutions would recover 25 per cent of the cost of courses in fees. (Some institutions felt that it was sensible to waive the fees, and live with a lower income.) In contrast many local authorities recover the full cost of courses - especially those taken "for pleasure" - to students. Most offer cheaper fees for low-income groups.

If the new council starts where the FEFC left off, and expects fees to cover a quarter of costs on every course, the effect in many places will be to reduce LEA provision.

Fees would drop, but so would the number of courses on offer, as public subsidy would get used up on a smaller body of work. As things stand, this is set to happen in 2003, when ringfencing ends and local authority courses are taken within the new council's funding framework.

However, it is not just an issue for LEAs. More adults learn in colleges than anywhere else. If, until 2003, colleges carry on recovering a quarter of costs through fees, whilst expanding courses of the type offered by local authorities, they will be using public subsidy to compete with LEA programmes. Hardly the level playing field to which the LSC is committed. So, the council needs to take an early view on fees to create a fair service offering a wide choice of courses to adults, that excludes no-one on the grounds of cost.

Colleges also need the new Adult Learning Inspectorate to undertake area inspections of adult provision whenever the Office for Standards in Education does its area inspections of 16-19 work.

If area inspections are limited to young people,they will give a partial and lopsided view, and adults' needs risk being sidelined. If these issues can be sorted we can all enjoy making creative use of the new funds arriving almost by the day. But unless they are sorted they risk creating new barriers to access and successful participation.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education

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