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It's not just about skills

Birmingham City Council estimates that around 35,000 learners a year enrol on its adult education courses - and roughly half are on recreational programmes.

"Local authority-managed adult learning has a history of promoting learning for its own sake," says Bob Malloy, the council's head of adult education.

Though he backs the government emphasis on basic skills, he hopes it will recognise the value of "non-accredited, non-vocational learning".

The city has a good record in adult education. As well as LEA courses, it has a plethora of providers, including eight FE colleges and an active voluntary and community sector.

Mr Malloy questions why further and adult education are dominated by the skills agenda when non-vocational learning is broadly available in schools and universities.

"Everything doesn't have to be work-related. At certain levels the idea of academic study for its own benefit seems to hold true. But when you get to the people who are least fortunate, they don't get to higher education, they are looking at FE or adult education, then it seems they can only be prioritised if there's a skill shortage in that subject."

In Barnsley, the authority offers free adult education in a bid to widen participation. Courses include hospitality, sports, construction, ICT but also non-vocational study.

Kim Garcia, head of strategic planning with Barnsley said charging fees could undermine its widening participation strategy.

"Our aim is to get to people who are hard to reach in a highly deprived area," he says. "Our central drive is to make that happen, and charging fees would make that very difficult."

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