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No fairness in adult funding

More bad news for adult learning. In stark contrast to the inspiring tales of Adult Learners' Week, the messages from the funding front make hard reading.

Doncaster college faces reductions in adult budgets this autumn, though it has no "other" further education. Newcastle college has pound;5 million less than the budget it anticipated. But, at least there is almost pound;40m left in the college's coffers. The worst news has come from local authority adult education services. In Essex there are cuts of up to 17 per cent in certificated FE courses. Cumbria's cut is "just" 12 per cent. the most extreme case is Northamptonshire which faces a two-thirds cut in its budget. No one pretends that 20067 will be easier. Quite the opposite. It will be markedly worse for adults if present policies remain unchanged.

At first sight, it is surprising, given the guarantee enshrined now in two successive Skills White Papers to preserve adult and community learning budgets to keep a wide range of studies for community-based learning, and learning for personal fulfilment. To understand how the Government and the Learning and Skills Council can meet the guarantee and yet introduce swingeing cuts in local authority adult services, it is necessary to revisit battles that dominated the early 1990s. At the time, colleges were incorporated and uncertificated adult education was left with truncated funding within the LEAs. Most adult education services adapted to offer certificated studies that qualified for Further Education Funding Council support under "Schedule 2" of the FHE 1992 Act. Over time, the greater security and new possibilities - offered by FEFC funding - saw many authorities expanding Schedule 2-funded work whilekeeping the LEA-budgeted work relatively stable. Local courses accredited by the Open College Network qualified for FEFC cash. Many LEA services, therefore, adapted uncertificated courses, in languages, art, fashion and so on to qualify for funds.

When Labour came to power in 1997, it promised to sweep away the "nonsense" of arbitrary qualification for funds under Schedule. That promise was honoured in the Learning and Skills Act in 2000, when LEA adult education budgets were taken over by that Act. Schedule 2 was binned. LEA services continued to get two discrete budgets. Where they had received FEFC funds, they got an allocation from the FE pot. In addition, there was "ring-fenced" adult and community learning money for the first three years of the LSC, and money assured through the Skills White Papers ever since.

By and large the adult community learning budgets are being broadly protected, but, ironically, the old Schedule 2 work is now acutely vulnerable in many places as the LSC's plans are put in jeopardy by the current funding crisis. The curriculum divide, in adult learning is, clearly, alive and well in too many places.

As a result, language courses that lead to OCN accreditation are at risk, while holiday Spanish is safe. This is, surely, ridiculous. After all, the Government's Skills Strategy is designed to improve the country's international competitiveness. Adult education services serve the business market in a far wider range of languages than are offered in schools. In addition, National Open College Network credit-bearing courses are used as early steps on the progression ladder by many students seeking better skills.

Surely, the time has come to re-integrate adult education services, and to trust learners and providers to strike the right balance of studies in community-based learning.

In fairness, not every area faces misery and gloom. In Birmingham, the adult education service has a 1.8 per cent cut in its adult and community learning allocation, and around 5 per cent growth in its FE allocation.

There, the LSC supports local area planning partnerships. It has targeted developments to increase participation in the least well served communities. As a result, providers and planners have confidence in each other. Similar reports are emerging from central London. If these places can match policy with practice, why can't others? After all, that is why adult education was nationalised. Isn't it?

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

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