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Scraps for the teenagers' table

The new government must look urgently at the crisis facing adult learners.

Across the country, news is flooding in of cuts in college budgets for adults, exacerbated by the Learning and Skills Council's demand that there be a further shift to 16 to 19-year-olds.

In January, adult learning was promised a 5 per cent funding increase, yet colleges in East Anglia report drops in adult funding, of between 5 and 16 percent. Wiltshire College, facing a pound;500,000 cut in its overall allocation, has been asked to shift a further pound;500,000 away from work with adults.

Initial Learning and Skills Council statistics for this year already show a 3 per cent drop in adult numbers, with a 7 per cent fall in college students over 60.

What happened to the assurance we were given that 2005-6 would be a transitional year, with budgets preserved? What do these changes mean for the guarantee to maintain the same volume of learning for its own sake? Or for the range of options available for people with learning difficulties? What kind of mess do we face in 2006-7, when the LSC's budget hole really widens?

The crisis has arisen because the bulk of adult education is below level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) and does not lead to a certificate. But the LSC is focusing adult spending on Skills for Life, the National Employment Training Programme and "full level 2" programmes that are equivalent to five good GCSE passes.

No one argues with the commitment to Skills for Life. Indeed in relation to English for Speakers of Other Languages that commitment needs to be increased.

Evidence also shows healthy demand for employment training pilots - though there is inevitable concern that public money may be replacing cash that some employers would have spent anyway. There are questions too about achievement rates in the pilots and their cost compared with similar courses.

But there is less evidence that adults feel able to commit themselves to a full level 2 course in colleges. Also why is this funding limited to people committed from the start to doing a full programme in a limited time, when we know adults study in bite-sized chunks, fitting learning in to busy lives?

The price of the current policy is a substantial loss of opportunities for thousands of adults who have found their way back to education and training. Yet, in colleges at least, these adults come disproportionately from less-affluent and less-skilled groups - exactly the people the Skills Strategy is designed to help.

Now, I am a keen supporter of the aims of the Skills Strategy. I agree that it is important for public funding to focus on those who benefited least from earlier education. I agree that level 2 qualifications are important, as a springboard to technician-level skills for which real demand exists.

But I do not believe the Government has willed the means for the strategy to succeed. We are still well down the global league of average investment in post-school education and training.

Not all the money should come from the state. Individuals who can afford it must be encouraged to pay more. That, however, involves a change of culture in many places, and staff need guidance on strategies that work.

Here, adult education services with years of experience could help - but the onus is on government and the LSC to secure that help. Employers should pay more but current policies offer mixed messages. The Government must tell industry to bear its share of the costs.

The Government also needs to invest more itself if we are to fill job vacancies of the next decade with skilled and confident adults. That has to be the clear conclusion of the Treasury's Leitch review of UK skills.

Everyone who cares about adult learning should write to the review this month to make sure this is clearly understood.

Meanwhile, Adult Learners' Week this year comes at an opportune time to remind the new government we cannot build a lifelong learning culture if adults only get a chance to learn when there are scraps left over from younger learners' feast.

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

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