Cuts for adults are bad for everyone

4th November 2005 at 00:00
I cannot help but feel that a number of pitfalls are going to emerge gradually from the shake-up of funding for adult learners announced last week by the Learning and Skills Council.

You would be forgiven for having missed the release of the document, Priorities for Success - Funding for Learning and Skills, appearing as it did during the fracas leading up to the white paper on school reforms.

In a nutshell, funds are being switched to cover courses for 16 to 19-year-olds and for those adults who, despite having spent more than a decade of their lives in the education system, still lack basic English and maths skills. If, however, your ambitions stretch beyond reading, writing and your times tables, it has been deemed that you and your employer are set to benefit financially from your studies and so will not receive public funding.

But there is one key issue that the LSC appears to have overlooked.

Education of 16-19s does not exist in isolation from that of adults. Most post-16 programmes are not exclusively made up of 16-19s. Colleges have to attract older groups in order to make the provision commercially viable.

After all, undersubscribed courses very quickly become defunct courses.

Cutting funding for these adult learners could, therefore, result in providers cutting some of evening and part-time courses, or even cutting entire programmes! The outcome is likely to be a marked decrease in choice and learning opportunities for everyone - including the very 16-19s the new system aims to help. I thought "education, education, education" was supposed to be all about choice but surely this shake-up will do little to contribute to it.

Having said this, some established courses and qualification paths will, no doubt, owing to their popularity and recognition by employers, survive withdrawal of funding. The Association of Accounting Technicians is among the lucky ones. We have 58,000 students in the UK, 65 per cent of whom are over 24 - and expect continuing employer and learner demand for our courses to sustain them.

But others will not be so fortunate. In essence, older workers trying to upgrade their skills are being unfairly penalised. Employers unwilling to fund their development will simply seek out younger candidates whose education the Government will fund. Frankly, who can blame them? This is completely inconsistent with the employment equality Act being introduced in a year's time.

The LSC has the unenviable task of directing resources where they are most needed. Its decision to focus on those without basic qualifications is commendable and the aim of ensuring more young people complete their apprenticeships is laudable.

But adults need to go on developing skills and knowledge over their working lives to remain employable. It would be unfortunate if, by addressing the first problem, the LSC reduced educational opportunities for adults.

Positive outcomes for 16-19s cannot and should not be achieved at the expense of older learners. "Priorities for Success" has obviously been devised with the best of intentions - but we all know how the road to Hell is paved.

Jane Scott Paul is chief executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians, the qualification and membership body for accounting staff.

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