It's one step forward and two back for adult education

Although Sue Pember is positive about the role of adult education in the future, Covid-19 has reduced participation, and this will add further to the skills problems this nation already has, she writes

Sue Pember

When it comes to adult community education, it is one step forward, two steps back, says Sue Pember

The adult community education (ACE) sector is an exciting and agile part of further education. It is loved by its students, thought well of by employers, and Ofsted judges it best in sector with 92 per cent of ACE providers being "good" or "outstanding". But adult community education has long been overlooked by parts of government, and is a rather poorly understood part of the further education sector, as proven yet again by the recent Department for Education announcements on financial clawback.

However, given all the interest shown in lifelong learning last year, I am beginning to see the tide change. The Commons Education Select Committee, under Robert Halfon’s leadership, brought the spotlight on to adult community education, and his concept of a centre in every town is great. It doesn’t have to be a shiny new building – nothing wrong with that if it can be created – but it does need to be the hub of activity in the community and reflect the local population.

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Background: Campaign calls for adult learning entitlement

Adult education is currently delivered through 10,000 venues across the country, but it is hidden and often targeted for certain groups in society, and that shouldn’t stop. But we need well-known, visible, local focus points where students and prospective students can learn new skills, get careers advice and be provided with practical support to find their way through our complex post-19 education landscape.

We already have adult education centres in some town and cities, where it is amazing to see flexible, multi-use buildings and how different student groups make use of them. The format and programming of the day is fascinating – for example, the first early-bird students are often those just finishing an early morning shift, such as cleaners who come in to do ESOL. This is followed by the unemployed, coming to day classes to brush up on IT and basic maths, and others who want to learn a new skill. The employed may turn up in the evening to put their toe into the water on practical subjects, like jewellery making and photography, because they want to change their profession. There are many who are willing to pay for such classes and others (often in the same class) who need a bursary to be there, all happily getting on together in companionship and unity, where the excitement of developing new ideas and skills together is palpable.

Treated equally and respected

These multi-purpose student centres are truly inspirational, a joy to visit, and demonstrate how we can achieve integration in a really positive environment where everyone is treated equally and respected, whether you are a refugee, have a learning difficulty or disability or are just despondent about life and wanting to change it. Adult education is good for people’s wellbeing and can support both the NHS and DWP agendas. It is no accident that other countries, such as China, are investing heavily in adult education, it works on so many fronts – it’s cost effective for government, helps solve the skills deficit while supporting other government departments and is enjoyed and loved by residents.

As can be seen from the reviews done last year, the case for new investment is well made and ACE providers are ready to grow to meet the challenges post Covid-19. These providers are innovative and adaptive and have responded well to successive government directions and policy nudges. Before Covid-19, the adult community education provided more than 500,000 adults with learning that suited their needs, whether that be acquiring the skills to secure a job, improving their confidence, enhancing their ability to integrate in society and/or improving their wellbeing through learning a new skill. We need to work together to bring those adults, and the next generation of adult learners, back into learning.

Although we are positive about the role of adult education in the future, Covid-19 has reduced participation, and this low participation will add further to the skills problems this nation already has. Even before Covid-19, we had large skills gaps, a legacy population with poor basic skills and issues from the fallout of Brexit. Given the skills issues this country is facing, it is bewildering that the DfE could, two- thirds of the way through the financial year, introduce a change to ACE providers' funding methodology. ACE providers stayed open on government’s instructions, and they thought that government understood that staying open and going online came at an added cost. The introduction of this clawback mechanism two-thirds of the way through the year seems like a betrayal. The change will weaken the sector at a time when it needs business continuity, so that colleges and other ACE providers can start to meet the challenges set out in the industrial strategy, the requirements post Brexit and the Covid-19 recovery plan.

Government should be capacity building, not removing funding, which removes providers’ capability to deliver to the groups in society which have been hit the hardest.

The pandemic represents an appalling tragedy, the ramifications of which we will struggle for years to come, but it has highlighted a need to change many of the skills systems we operate within. They are not flexible enough to cope with pandemics, disasters or even changes arising from more predictable events, such as increased unemployment created by changing employer needs. It is time for that FE White Paper promise of an overhaul of the adult funding methodology, and, in the short term, this new clawback rule should be reassessed and turned around to support capacity building.   

Sue Pember is policy director at Holex

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