Adult learning in free fall

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Numbers drop by 151,000 (12.7%) as ministers push for people to take longer courses to improve chance of skilled jobs

Colleges are moving away from traditional adult education at an ever- increasing rate, with even "safeguarded" provision losing nearly one in six students.

Figures from the Learning and Skills Council show that adult numbers last October were 1.04 million - down by 151,000 on the previous year.

While the number of teenagers in further education rose by just over 3 per cent, the shortfall is in adult education, where student numbers fell by 12.7 per cent.

It reflects a shift to longer courses designed to improve the skills of workers, with nearly 4 per cent more adults taking Level 2 courses - equivalent to five good GCSEs - and nearly 3 per cent on Level 3 (A-level equivalent).

Since the courses take more time, fewer students overall tend to be recruited. But in what is known as "adult safeguarded learning" - the pound;210 million a year programme to preserve some of the adult education courses that were devastated by the shift towards work-related study - numbers still fell by 17.5 per cent in spite of a constant level of funding.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said the trend may be partly explained by colleges taking on more expensive work for disabled or disadvantaged students.

But he added the rate of decline suggested the safeguard was not enough to preserve a broad range of adult education courses.

Over the last three years, the safeguarded provision has actually fallen by 41 per cent, from 440,000 in 2004 to 259,000 at the start of this academic year.

Mr Tuckett said: "If the downward trend from the October figures was to continue, learner numbers in the safeguarded provision would be close to disappearing in five years' time. We can't afford these numbers to drop any more since that, after all, was the rationale for the adoption of the safeguard in the first place.

"Adult education of all sorts has a benefit for people's lives."

The Government defended the overall fall in numbers, saying it represented a shift to fewer, longer courses that led to qualifications and would improve people's chances of securing skilled work.

Student numbers on the Train to Gain scheme, where employers receive free training for their staff, had risen to by 124,000 to 168,000 at the start of this academic year, compared to last year.

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, said the number of adults studying for full level 2 qualifications was up 45 per cent, and the numbers on full level 3 courses were up 10 per cent, largely because of the 360,000 people who have joined Train to Gain since it started.

He said: "In terms of the overall adult participation figures, while these show a downward trend this is to be expected, as we have prioritised funding away from short courses that don't lead to progression in education or employment, towards courses for those most in need. We will continue to support those on priority courses and those on low incomes.

"However, we have always been clear that, where appropriate, learners and employers should contribute more to the costs of learning where they will see the greatest direct returns."


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