Is it so wrong to put teens before adults?

Julian Gravatt, funding director of the Association of Colleges, gives his views on Eight in Ten, the largest-ever inquiry into adult education

"Eight in ten" learners in colleges are over 19. This fact supplies the title of the inquiry into the state of adult learning in colleges by Niace, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

The Association of Colleges took part in the inquiry and supplied evidence.

The report echoes many of the concerns that the AoC has raised about the future of adult learning and makes some sensible recommendations about the way forward.

The central case is that new thinking and a new language is needed to formulate policy and provision. The Niace report agrees with Sir Andrew Foster (see right) that skills and employability are central to colleges but adds that another purpose - creating and sustaining cultural value - should also be recognised and supported. The report questions current policies, in particular the concentration of activity and money on a narrow set of government targets.

The inquiry highlights the importance of demographics in education. The creation of the Learning and Skills Council brought together almost all post-16 education and training outside universities into a single organisation in 2001.

In the four years since then, the teenage population has risen, as have the numbers staying in education. These trends, plus the rising costs of 16 to 19 education and training, have placed great pressure on the LSC budget.

After four years in which the LSC adult learning budget increased to pay for the expansion of basic skills, there will be four years of decline, starting in 2005. It is unlikely that fees will make up the difference, as the government hopes, Where Eight in Ten slightly misses the point is to blame the teenagers for these cuts to adult courses. It has been clear since spring 2004 that the LSC budget is insufficient for all the demands placed on it but whose fault is that? The Department for Education and Skills benefits in the current spending round from extra government cash and from a demographic dividend created by static numbers of children.

The key budget decision made by ministers was to spend this money on school quality and university reform. The groups served by the LSC came third.

And if the LSC puts teenagers ahead of adults, is this necessarily wrong? There is enough evidence at home and from international surveys that action is needed to tackle social exclusion among young people and to develop a better curriculum.

What is definitely wrong is the decision to put adults in higher education ahead of adults in further education. In the same month that the LSC announced a pound;70 million cash cut for adult learning in colleges, pound;20 million was found in higher education for part-time students.

Five per cent of adults in colleges get financial support, compared to more than 50 per cent of adults in universities.

Fees are due to go up by 65 per cent in colleges over the next three years.

Yes, fees have risen in universities too - but a pound;3,000 low-interest loan is available to all students so they do not pay a penny till they graduate. More than pound;5 billion will be spent next year by the Government on education at level 4 (degree equivalent) and above, yet less than pound;500m will be spent on education at level 3 (A-level equivalent) for those over 19.

Is it any surprise that an early finding of the Leitch report on long-term skill needs is that the UK does well at educating its elite and not so well at the rest?

That said, Eight in Ten deserves wider attention. At the report's launch, Chris Hughes said that adult learning needs more than a few paragraphs in the skills strategy. Without concerted action, adult learning in many colleges could become a distant memory.

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