The quality and quantity of adult education will continue to depend entirely on your home address unless local authorities are given some formal definition of "adequate provision", a report published this week suggests.
The Office for Standards in Education survey of 75 local authorities in the year 1994-95 found that while 85 per cent of adult education classes were satisfactory or better, there was a huge variation both in standards and availability.
In one authority, for instance, inspectors recorded 30 enrolments per 1,000 population each year, in another, 139 per 1,000. Inspectors observed that these differences often had more to do with an authority's ability to plan and publicise courses to suit the needs of local people than the size of its budget.
Under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, the funding of certificated academic and vocational courses was transferred to the Further Education Funding Council, and local authorities were obliged to ensure that they provided an "adequate" service for what remained, such as evening classes. This, as the report reveals, has resulted in fragmentation: a third of LEAs have kept control of adult education, while others contract other providers such as FE colleges, or deliver adult education through community schools.
The inspectors criticise the scramble by some authorities to turn as many courses as possible into vocational ones to attract FEFC funding, arguing that in some cases, particularly small metropolitan boroughs, this has "skewed the curriculum" and resulted in failure to meet FEFC targets.
"A downward spiral is setting in from which it is proving difficult to emerge," the report says. The poorest services were found in boroughs where there was neither a coherent vision of what adult education should look like nor established criteria on which to judge standards.
There was particular anxiety about classes based in some community schools which had no adult education specialists.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Education, agreed that a sensible definition of "adequacy" would help everyone, and that the drive to accredit previously uncertificated courses was not necessarily welcome.
"For many people - such as women who've spent years bringing up children - the uncertificated evening class is the first step back into education. If they can't take this step, they're less likely to consider certificated courses. The rigid divide between academicvocational versus 'leisure' is not defensible. "
The inspectors also looked at youth work, and arrived at broadly similar conclusions - 74 per cent of sessions were at least satisfactory, but standards and participation rates varied wildly. Again, the best service was found where activities were carefully planned and tightly focused. Few authorities provided any training or staff development for their youth workers, and LEAs need to monitor youth sessions more regularly in order to identify those that are simply a waste of time, said the report.
The inspectors note that the high media profile given to youth crime has brought outside funding into the service, protecting many budgets from the worst of the cuts, but they also warn authorities to "examine critically their rationale for seeking external funding".
Last year, a survey of youth work by a London-based group, Youth Matters, revealed that some workers felt the agenda was being dictated by the need to attract external funding and only politically acceptable projects, such as combating drug abuse, were succeeding.