Tap turned off for short courses

Older learners lose out as skills training absorbs increasing chunks of funding

EVERY YEAR the Learning and Skills Council's data on student numbers shows the winners and losers resulting from changes to funding and policy.

This year, the figures showed that we at the adult education body Niace and the Association of Colleges were wrong to suggest a million adult learners would disappear in three years. This sharp decline was achieved in just two. The figures also give early evidence about the Train to Gain programme, which had reached 89,000 people by January this year.

Everyone recognises that it costs more to fund a substantial qualification than a taster course. However, the contrast between a million adults lost to FE and 89,000 gains in workplace training is striking. It raises many questions.

What will it cost, at current levels of investment, to secure the skilled workforce the country seeks? Do we have the right balance of public investment between work-based learning and community-based activity?

Digging into the figures, we find that 3,000 places for adults with learning difficulties have been lost across the country. Participation in FE by the over-60s has halved in just two years. In addition, institutions that focused on the needs of pre-entry-level Skills for Life students in London face budget cuts.

It is too early to make judgments about the overall impact of Train to Gain. But development is patchy. Skills brokers are too ready to offer a one-size-fits-all solution to employers' needs. Meanwhile, continuing cuts in "other further education" add to the pressure on organisations to spend money for adult learning wisely.

Those cuts in FE for adults make the safeguarded budgets for adult and community learning, family and neighbourhood learning in deprived communities look reassuringly secure. All right, there has been no inflation for the past two years. But, otherwise, budgets have been stable.

Why then do the LSC figures show big falls in participation over two years for every age cohort over 25? These figures show a peak, with a drop of 30 per cent for people in their 50s taking safeguarded courses.

One major reason for the decline is the summary ending of funding for short courses. While every self-respecting professional is booking in for intensive one-day briefings as part of their competence updating, the tap has been turned off for Saturday schools and other short courses.

Gone are the day schools on "Reasons for the war in Iraq" or "How to claim working tax credits". Out, too, are courses such as an "Introduction to Shakespeare's sonnets", or a "Quick introduction to PowerPoint".

There is, apparently, little statistical evidence of a link between such courses and the progress we all want learners to make. But they are brilliant at engaging older people - and at a time when much community provision is being reduced, the argument for making a little go a long way is a powerful one.

It would help reverse the decline in adult participation - and put a little adventure back into some tired programmes.

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

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