Voluntary and community organisations working with the country's hardest-to-reach learners are facing financial crisis following cuts in adult education funding.
Groups working in some of the UK's most deprived areas face staff losses or closure as their funding dries up, despite ministers viewing the sector as a linchpin of neighbourhood regeneration.
Consortia of community learning organisations warn that their partnerships are under threat. They blame a shift in post-16 education funding towards skills and 14-19 education, combined with a loss of traditional sources of cash such as the European Social Fund and Single Regeneration Budget.
The Humberside Learning Consortium has already lost a partner. Changes, The Learning Shop, in Hull, faces closure in March and 13 job losses, despite being recognised for outstanding provision of training and guidance for adults.
Jenny Mills, the chief executive of the consortium, said even its recurrent Learning and Skills Council funding of pound;250,000 would not keep community groups afloat.
Existing Skills for Life projects come to an end later this year, she said, and a project co-funded by the skills council and Jobcentre Plus will not take its place until mid-2008. "There's going to be a big gap," she said.
"And if there's nothing to fill it, we will go down and others will go down with us."
Ms Mills warned that valuable work in Humberside's poorest neighbourhoods would be lost. "Many of the people we are working with need that first step and some support. For them, education was probably a very negative experience in the past."
In Sussex, a five-month delay in a decision over a Big Lottery bid has jeopardised a workforce skills project for which funding ended last month.
Su Mitchell, the Sussex consortium co-ordinator, said: "There is a danger they will lose people. And that's a problem when there's quite a lot of knowledge that rests with an individual."
Cheryl Turner, the development officer for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said many groups had been hit by cuts in franchising arrangements with colleges just as other funding sources ended.
"It would be impossible to give an accurate sense of what proportion of voluntary and community organisations are affected because the figures aren't there," she said. "But my impression is that the experience of Humberside and Sussex is replicated in other places across the country."
The institute fears that, on top of the funding crisis, voluntary and community groups will lose out under the new demand-led post-16 funding system.
Norwich City College has had to close five of its six community outreach centres following an pound;860,000 cut in adult education funding. Dick Palmer, the principal, said that although the college still has links with community organisations, it has had to cut back on its partnership work.
"It has decimated the provision," he said. "I don't think politicians have really thought through the societal implications of this. We are going to get much more fragmented communities."
Voluntary and community organisations play a key role in Government plans for social and economic regeneration, a recent Treasury and Cabinet Office report shows.
Bill Rammell, the further education minister, said: "The Government and the Learning and Skills Council are committed to working with the voluntary sector, both as strategic partners and as providers of education and training.
"Much existing stepping stone provision is leading learners nowhere. We are developing the foundation learning tier to help people back into learning.
Good voluntary and community sector providers must be involved."
Changes - The Learning Shop was set up six years ago to combat Hull's low levels of literacy and numeracy and raise skills levels among the city's workforce. But it now faces closure as funding dries up, despite being graded "excellent" in a mock Adult Learning Inspectorate-style inspection.
The organisation, which last year had to close its city centre shop and move its service to Hull Central Library, attracts people with its free information, advice and guidance and range of taster courses. It has run Skills for Life and information technology courses, as well as outreach work with refugees, former offenders and women returning to education and training.
Since its launch, it has helped more than 1,000 people get into work or gain promotions, referred more than 6,000 people to learning providers and delivered 350 outreach sessions, reaching 2,500 people in deprived city communities.
But the loss of funding from its usual sources, coupled with cuts to adult learning funding, have left Changes in crisis. When existing contracts come to an end in March, 13 staff face redundancy. The organisation is negotiating with a private company to take over its information and guidance service, which may rescue some staff.
The manager, Tony Taylor, said: "In theory, at the end of March everyone's redundant because there's just no contract, no work for us to bid for.
"I know of another organisation, larger than us, that's going to go at the end of March, despite their best efforts to be sustainable.
"If you look at the figures for Hull, the schools are bottom of the league and there are lots of areas where people have no qualifications whatsoever.
So the demand is there.
"We have always sought out the hardest to work with, but there's just no funding to apply for."